What's in it for the disabled?

Capability Scotland's Abigail Bremner reports on what it's like to be a disabled voter, barriers peo

I’ve been perusing the manifestos of the main political parties in the run up to the Scottish Elections to see what they’ll be promising disabled voters. In terms of column inches, the Lib Dems do best, and they also come nearest to offering a commitment to independent living. The Scottish National Party are a close second, with some good policy content as well. The Labour Party ‘will promote civil rights for disabled people’ – which, in fairness, isn’t a position one could object to, but it’s a little short on the detail. The Conservatives want to ensure that ‘special’ schools maintain their role alongside mainstream education for disabled children. So they’re not afraid of controversy then!.

Capability Scotland is one of Scotland’s leading disability organisations working for a just Scotland. We’ve been campaigning on voting issues for disabled people since 1999, including regular surveys on the accessibility of voting processes. The results of our latest voting intentions survey are just in. It shows that disabled people and carers are more likely to vote than the rest of the population, with 94% of respondents stating that they will definitely be voting in the upcoming election. Twenty-eight percent also state that they are undecided as to which party they will be voting for, meaning that there is everything to play for in terms of winning disabled votes. Yet – as the analysis above shows – political parties are hardly going out of their way to court their disabled constituents.

It seems strange that disabled people are not treated by political analysts as a ‘lobby’ in the same way as, for example, the pensioners’ lobby to which so much attention is devoted (especially as both groups are roughly equivalent in size in terms of their representation in the general population). However, the flip side to this is that disabled people can and do choose to define themselves by characteristics other than their disability.

The main focus of Capability Scotland’s campaigning activity is on the barriers disabled people face when trying to exercise their right to vote. Our research shows that things are (generally) improving. In 1997, 43% of polling stations had major accessibility issues. This compares with 40% in 2001 and 17% in 2003, although the figure increased to 24% in 2005. I’ve been asked before why more disabled people don’t just vote by post – and I’m always keen to point out that voting by post means that you can lose out on the opportunity to follow the political debate right up until polling day before making a final decision. However, voting by post does remain the preferred option for some disabled people, out of necessity in some cases and out of choice in others.

The access issues faced by disabled people in the voting process aren’t just physical. We have been working to highlight the problems faced by people with learning difficulties, who can struggle to get access to information about voting and – crucially – about the policies of the parties they might want to vote for, in an easy to understand format. Our research shows that people with learning disabilities are more likely to report negative voting experiences than disabled people as a whole.

Our www.vote.org.uk website is a key plank of our activity. This aims to support disabled people in exercising their right to vote by providing information on the voting experience and on the sorts of additional support – such as low level polling booths and tactile voting devices – that they can expect to find at their local polling place.

And finally, Capability Scotland will also be practising what we preach this year, by volunteering our head office to our local council for use as a fully accessible polling station.