With the General Election on the horizon, politicians must endeavour to represent all their constituents equably – especially those with learning disabilities.
As Merseyside’s residents are preparing to cast their vote in tomorrow’s general election, local politicians and campaigners are flocking to the streets in a bid to win votes.
Having had weeks to consider our choices, alongside numerous live TV debates, many of us have already made an informed decision about who we plan to vote for.
But, not all manifestos were released with their accompanying accessible formats – with some only being released a week before polling day.
As a result, we must ask ourselves:
Are we really doing everything in our power to ensure our voting process is fair and accessible for all?
Cecil Gregory, from Crosby, will be celebrating his 70th birthday next year.
A socially active man, Cecil is known for voicing his own opinions face-to-face. However, because of his past experiences as a man with mild learning disabilities, Cecil has never entered a polling station.
Cecil told Mersey Community News: “People didn’t understand dyslexia or autism back in the 50s. I was sent to a special school with a diagnosis of “childhood schizophrenia”, which meant that when I came of age, I was institutionalised.
“I am deaf as well and I struggled greatly with writing. Staff who supported me at the time knew this. I lived with them for many years, year on year I asked them to let me vote. One day, one person said to me: “Cecil, you’re illiterate – are you sure you can mark an X on a ballot paper?”
“Year on year, I was told that I was too stupid to vote – and sometimes, I still believe them to this day.”
As a supported living resident, Cecil finally feels empowered to vote – but he feels ‘disadvantaged’ by the delayed release of accessible manifestos.
“I have been listening to debates for years, but I cannot read their policies without someone giving me a lot of support.
“Most of the manifestos came out very late, and it’s left people like me at a huge disadvantage because I only had a week or so to make an informed decision. I really feel cast aside. It’s like I don’t matter.
“Now I have all the Easy Read documents, I can make that decision before me, but other people have had this information weeks beforehand. It’s not fair – they should be out on day one.”
Cecil’s experiences as a voter with a learning disability are not unique.
Statistics released by the Department for Work and Pensions in 2018 suggest 1.5 million people in the UK have a disability, accounting for a large portion of the populace.
The question of facilitating people with learning disabilities is a major issue, especially in light of Sally-Ann Hart MP’s claims that people with learning disabilities should be paid less because some “don’t understand money”.
It is a particularly salient point on the Wirral and Liverpool, where 18% of the population are recognised as having a learning disability.
This means that in order for a large number of Merseyside’s voters to engage in the democratic process, adaptations to manifestos and resources need to be made.
“One day, one person said to me: “Cecil, you’re illiterate – are you sure you can mark an X on a ballot paper?”
Year on year, I was told that I was too stupid to vote – and sometimes, I still believe them to this day.”Cecil Gregory, age 69, from Crosby.
Yet in spite of this, the Green Party was the only main party which released its manifestos simultaneously – with the Conservative Party releasing an ‘inadequate’ manifesto, and the Labour Party releasing theirs ‘a week before polling day’.
The Electoral Commission believe that only 1 in 4 people eligible voters with learning disabilities are registered to vote this year.
Worse still, their figures suggest that only 1 in 6 voters from Merseyside feel empowered to do so.
Marie Taylor, an embroiderer from Meols, is one of those voters.
Even though she lives without social support, Marie has been asking her loved ones to print Easy Read manifestos so that she can cast her vote on tomorrow.
In her eyes, politicians should think carefully about how they talk to their audiences – and ditch the jargon.
Marie said: “They all just shout at each other, and when they’re talking on the telly, they say big words. I don’t know what they’re saying, but I know they talk about people like me and I want to understand.
“They should keep it simple. That way, everybody understands what is going on and nobody feels left out.
“Sometimes I feel like they forget about us, and that they’re denying us the chance to vote.”
Like Cecil, Marie was also frustrated by the late arrival of accessible documents.
Marie explained: “There’s lots of people like me in the country who want to vote, but are not given the chance to understand what’s going on. This means we have no incentive to get out there and vote.
“It’s really bad that they didn’t release the documents on time, and if I didn’t have them, I wouldn’t be able to vote. I would really struggle, and even now I have to have somebody with me to help me.
“All of this makes me feel left behind, and like my vote doesn’t matter because I have a disability. They need to remember that people like me exist, because we are just as important as everyone else.”
Voter accessibility has been a core issue for national charities such as Mencap and Learning Disability England.
Mencap has been working hard to engage people with learning disabilities to help engage and understand the election process, with Liverpool Mencap even hosting their own mock elections to familiarise voters with the process.
“All of this makes me feel left behind, and like my vote does not matter because I have a disability. They need to remember that people like me exist, because we are just as important as everyone else.”Marie Taylor, aged 34, from Meols.
Mencap have urged the major UK parties to release accessible manifestos at the same time as their official manifestos, so to provide people with ample time to reach their own decisions.
Although organisations such as United Response have created their own easy-read manifestos online, the fact that few parties launched accessible manifestos as part of their main campaign raises questions with regards to transparency.
They want MPs to consider central issues to people with learning disabilities, such as social care, mental health and social isolation.
A spokesperson from Liverpool and Sefton Mencap, who wished to remain anonymous, said that MPs should take the time to visit people in day centres ‘at least once a month’ in order to show that they ‘care’ about them.
They said: “Politicians say that they care about us, but they have to see us and talk to us so they can understand the issues we face.
“We face just as many problems as other people, and we all have our thoughts and feelings about how to deal with them. Sometimes MPs make decisions without talking to us first, and that’s not right – they should make sure we are involved. It’s our human right.
“MPs could help us by coming to the care care centres once a month, or by giving us a special surgery time where we can talk in a place that is accessible for us.
That way they can fully understand our issues, but at the moment, I don’t think they’re making an effort to involve us. It’s like they don’t want us to understand.”
Mencap are urging politicians to ensure future political campaigns are inclusive of people’s needs, by using clear language on the ballot paper and including pictures demonstrating how to vote.
“In the past, political parties have not always produced good quality easy read manifestos, or have published them late in their campaigns. If we don’t have access to the same information at the same time as the general population then people with a learning disability – like myself – can be excluded.”Ismail Kaji, Parliamentary Support Officer at Mencap
Mencap are also encouraging eligible voters with learning disabilities to feel confident cast their vote and, if they have not done so already, consult their collection of Easy Read guides online.
The charity believes that everyone has the right to ‘have their voices heard’, and that Easy Read manifestos should be produced within an adequate time frame, to a high standard.
By providing accessible resources to people with disabilities, it is hoped that we can empower people like Maria, like Cecil, to ensure people with learning disabilities to turn out and vote.
Ismail Kaji, the Parliamentary Support Officer at Mencap, said: “People with a learning disability have a right to vote and, with the right support, can vote just like anyone else.
“In the past, political parties haven’t always produced good quality easy read manifestos, or have published them very late in their campaigns. If we don’t have access to the same information at the same time as the general population then people with a learning disability – like myself – can be excluded.
“That’s why we want all of the political parties to publish a high-quality easy read version of their manifesto at the same time as publishing their manifesto.
People with a learning disability have the right to be included in the election – and have our voices heard.”
When is the general election?
The general election takes place on Thursday, 12th December.
Polling stations are open from 7am until 10pm, and you must be registered to vote.
There is nothing in law to prevent a person with a learning disability from voting, and can vote with the help of a support worker or advocate if necessary.
How do I vote in the General Election?
Mencap have released a number of Easy Read guides explaining how people with learning disabilities can take part in the General Election.
You can read their guidelines here.
You must be registered to vote in order to do this.
How can I decide who to vote for?
The main political parties have released accessible versions of their manifestos, if you need to read them before casting your vote.
Click the links below to access accessible manifestos from the following parties:
Where is my local polling station?
You can find out where your local polling station is here.
What happens if I cannot get to the polling station?
You can apply for an emergency proxy vote if you have fallen sick, are disabled or unexpectedly away for work at late notice.
For those struggling to arrange transport to their local polling station, Uber Assist are providing free rides to wheelchair users, people with disabilities and the elderly.