According to a number of disabled charities, too many people with disabilities are still being denied their right to vote.
With only a few weeks to go until the general elections, disabled charities say huge improvements are needed to ensure people with disabilities have an equal opportunity to vote.
According to disability charities Scope and Liveability - two-thirds of polling stations had “one or more significant access barriers” to disabled voters at the last general election, and 42% of all constituency offices surveyed had doors and corridors too narrow to allow wheelchairs through. In addition, 39% have steps or ramps that are unsuitable to allow wheelchair access to the building.
Wheelchair users who wished to vote in last year’s local and European elections found themselves stuck outside polling stations because they couldn’t even access the buildings.
In some cases, despite access signs indicating wheelchair ramps, there were no safety barriers in place and unacceptable drops from ramps to polling station floors. For those who did actually make it inside polling station buildings some then found they were unable to fit their wheelchairs through narrow internal doorways.
Reports from the last elections reveal that many polling stations failed to provide tactile voting devices for blind or visually impaired voters and loop systems to enable people with hearing aids to communicate. Disabled voters also reported being ignored by staff and one wheelchair user even experienced having a ballot box brought out to him while being made to wait outside in the rain.
People with learning disabilities have reported feeling ignored and excluded from the voting process for some time.
Research from the learning disability charity Mencap showed that 60% of those with learning disabilities failed to register to vote for the last election because they found it too difficult.
Following the 2010 election, one in five people with learning disabilities told the charity they had been turned away at polling stations because of their disability.
Since last year, the Electoral Commission - the independent UK elections watchdog - has reiterated its guidance to local authorities to ensure polling stations don't disadvantage disabled people and that no registered voter can be refused the opportunity to vote on the grounds of mental or physical incapacity.
Disabled people make up more than 20% of the UK voting age population but many are literally being shut out of politics. According to the research carried out by Scope, the current problems preventing many disabled people from voting represent only a 1% improvement on the 2005 general election voting experience. Tellingly, neither David Cameron’s nor the disability minister Mark Harper’s offices are accessible for disabled people.
Local authorities are supposed to ensure disabled people aren’t disadvantaged or hindered in any way in the voting process. Despite this, there is no duty for polling stations to be wheelchair-accessible and many don’t clarify what aid people with disabilities have a right to, such as help in the actual voting booths.
According to a recent general election survey, 84% of sick and disabled benefit claimants say their lives have been made worse since the coalition government came to power. The fact that so many of these people wont even be able to vote to change their predicament only adds insult to injury.
It really is high time that we as a country get our act together to ensure we give disabled people their basic democratic rights, no-one is excluded from the electoral process and everyone can vote without feeling ostracised or let down by the whole experience.
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