Something struck me while the Arab Spring was spreading throughout the Middle East in 2011. The main reason so much of the British media and public was enthusiastic about these revolutions was the hope they would result in the spread of democracy to other countries. Indeed, we are often very vocal about the importance of the right to vote in other countries, and rightly so. Yet we seem less concerned about the state of democracy in our own country.
By this I don't just mean the increasing disenchantment with mainstream politics and the decline in voter turnout, though these are certainly worrying. I mean the fact that a large numbers of disabled people remain effectively disenfranchised - most notably the one million people with learning disabilities in England.
On 2 May millions of people across England will vote in the local elections, a chance to offer a verdict on the performance of the Government halfway through the current parliament, or to have your say on local services. Yet people with learning disabilities are likely to be rare in those polling station queues.
There are two main reasons for this disenfranchisement. The first is that many people with learning disabilities still believe that they don't have the legal right to vote, despite the efforts of the Electoral Commission and charities like United Response to tell them that they do. Although progress was made in the last general election to encourage more people with learning disabilities to vote, the total turnout was still less than a third.
The second reason so many people with learning disabilities fail to vote is because of the way that political parties communicate. The language politicians use is often impenetrable, and written materials like pamphlets or manifestoes are often full of small print and jargon. These put many voters off but if you find reading difficult, like most people with learning disabilities, you may feel completely locked out of the process.
The solution to the first problem is relatively obvious, if harder to achieve. Those of us who work with people with learning disabilities need to do as much as we can to inform people of their right to vote and to support them to exercise that right. At the same time, the people who run elections need to make themselves fully aware of the law, and to make sure that no unnecessary barriers are created. Research by Scope showed that at the last general election, 67% of polling stations had significant access barriers for disabled voters. A look at our Every Vote Counts website can help electoral officers to become more familiar with the law.
The second problem is trickier to tackle, but the potential rewards make it worth the effort. Politicians can start by communicating in a simpler and more direct way, such as by using simpler language, avoiding jargon and using visual aids in written materials. Not only will that open up our democracy to the million voters with learning disabilities, but it will actually help the political parties to reconnect with the millions of other voters who feel that politicians don't speak their language.
At United Response we will be doing our part, not only to support people to vote in these local elections, but to engage more people with politics throughout the rest of the year. We have created the first "easy read" newspaper, Easy News, which translates important news stories into accessible versions so that people with learning disabilities can inform themselves about current affairs.
Easy News has been greeted enthusiastically by all the main parties, which is important as we will need their support to keep making politics and news more accessible. It is only when all of our own citizens feel informed and able to vote that we will be in a position to criticise other countries' democratic credentialsSuggest a correction