I walk into the service user council meeting, and Tom, the council chair, beckons me in. There are about a dozen members here today: people with learning disabilities, mental health concerns and dementia. Tom tells the members I am here to talk about the election. There's an explosion of groans and shouts and laughs as Dave, one of the more boisterous members of the council shouts: "Oh No! Not that crap again!". "I'm afraid so", I tell them "it's getting close..."
Rob's reaction echoed that of Brenda, the Bristol housewife door-stepped on the day the election was announced, but there are a couple of key differences. Soundbites and campaign information have filled Brenda's screens and letterbox and she can weigh it all up and make her choice, including to not vote at all. For people with a learning disability, it's not so simple.
There are a number of barriers to overcome first - when you have a learning disability, society makes everything - including exercising your democratic rights - much harder. There are no figures available on how many of the UK's 1.5 million people with learning disabilities voted in 2015, but if our experience is typical, the answer is not many. Social care has been top of the political agenda, but people with a learning disability have been excluded from this debate as well, with all the attention being focussed on home care and, indeed, little mention of the impact of local authority spending cuts to this vulnerable group of people.
One of the chief hurdles is access to information. Presenting that information in a way that makes sense to someone with a cognitive impairment is challenging, and it's a challenge that all parties have been slow to meet. As a support provider it is not our job to provide that information and attempts to do so are fraught with difficulty - everyone is terrified of influencing someone's vote. It is reassuring that this year the main parties have finally acknowledged that this is their responsibility. The Labour Party published its accessible manifesto a few weeks ago, in easy read and other formats; the other parties have now followed suit with variable degrees of polish. It's a huge step forward.
Back in the council meeting, they have hit their stride and I am bombarded with questions - they want to know about Brexit, about benefits, about refugees. But I am there to talk about our plans for a panel event. We invited all the candidates and the Lib Dems, the Greens and the Labour Party agreed to meet people and answer their questions. We booked a room for a Saturday; it had to be a Saturday, because staff time is being given for free. The council then return to writing questions reflecting their concerns.
Whilst our efforts have been focussed on the people we support, we have also needed to work with the people supporting them. The questions they have are common: questions about someone's capacity to vote; about the potential wisdom of their choice; about whether they understand the issues; anxieties people might vote a particular way for "silly" reasons. These are views held by others in society too and yet lack of capacity is no barrier to voting in law.
People with support needs are among those most affected by changes in Governmental ideology and priority, and yet whilst they don't have access to information and to proactive staff support, they are prevented from having their voices heard and their silence is then easily ignored. It is an indictment of our democracy as a whole that this disenfranchisement continues.
So, what can be done to address these challenges? We need to see better education for staff to address their core anxieties, so that they feel capable of supporting this vulnerable group of people to make an informed vote - but without undue influence. We need to support people with learning difficulties, and others supported by the social care sector, to articulate the issues that concern them, bearing in mind these concerns are sometimes not the same as those of the average voter. They need to have direct access to the candidates - via events such as our panel debate - and support, before and after, to reflect and interpret what has been heard, as well as to understand the mechanics of voting and their right to vote.
Above all, the parties need to understand the needs of this sizable group and recognise they need to do more to engage with people throughout the lifetime of a parliament, not just for a week or so before an election.Suggest a correction