Clamouring for the right to vote seems slightly out of sync with modern politics, like watching a suffragette discover voter apathy, or Nigel Farage. Still, things tend to feel more important if you’re stopped from doing them. It’s 2015 and disabled people in this country haven’t yet got the franchise. Well, we have in theory, but having the legal right to cast your ballot isn’t much comfort when dire access means you can’t physically do it.
Adam Lotun, who uses a wheelchair, found himself stuck outside his polling station, a community centre in Tolworth, Surrey, when he went to vote in the 2014 local and European elections. Despite access signs pointing to a ramp, there were no safety barriers and there was a drop to the floor of the building.
“Even if I’d managed that, I was then faced with narrow internal doors, which I wouldn’t have been able to get my wheelchair through,” Lotun, 53, tells me. Unable to get inside, he couldn’t vote.
Lotun’s experience is not a rare one. Two-thirds of polling stations had “one or more significant access barriers” to disabled voters at the last general election, according to Scope’s Polls Apart survey – anything from failing to provide a tactile voting device for blind voters, leaving them worried they’d accidentally spoilt their ballot paper, to not having a loop system to allow people with hearing aids to communicate. One disabled voter reported being ignored by staff and being spoken to only through her PA. Another described having to have the ballot box brought down steps to him as he sat outside in the rain.
It’s worth noting that this state of affairs represents a 1% improvement on the 2005 general election, based on Scope’s previous research. I do not sense a frantic rush to equality.
“Local authorities are meant to take steps to ensure that disabled people aren’t disadvantaged in voting,” Ellen Clifford, co-founder of Operation Disabled Vote, the campaign for disabled people’s voter registration, tells me. “But there’s no duty for polling stations to be wheelchair-accessible and many don’t make clear to voters what help they have a right to, such as assistance in the voting booths.”
Voting is one incompetent part of the generally depressing picture of this country’s ability to give disabled people basic democratic rights. Even talking to an MP is too much to ask, apparently. Almost half (42%) of all constituency offices surveyed have doors and corridors that won’t let a wheelchair through, according to research by the disability charity Livability, seen exclusively by the Guardian. Thirty nine percent have steps or poor ramps that mean wheelchairs can’t even get inside the building. With some irony, Disability News Service recently found that Mark Harper’s office – he’s the disability minister – is not accessible for disabled people. Nor, for that matter, is David Cameron’s. I’m not sure at what point it was decided the disabled vote wasn’t wanted. It’s not the most pragmatic move, anyway, considering that’s about 15,000 potential voters per constituency.
The exclusion isn’t even subtle – lack of ramps at polling stations and MPs’ offices up flights of steps. Disabled people are quite literally shut out of politics.
After five years in which the disabled have been sacrificed to austerity, this is symbolic of a political elite who have got used to discarding our needs.
According to a recent Benefits and Work general election survey, 84% of sick and disabled benefit claimants say the coalition government has made their lives worse or much worse. In this climate, where disabled people have been hit harder than any other group, being prevented from going to your MP or casting your vote takes on a new edge. The only thing worse than being kicked repeatedly is being kicked repeatedly while being stopped from fighting back.