The 2010 general election will take place in a matter of months. And it has never been more important for people with a learning disability to use their vote.
UK general elections give people with a learning disability, their families and carers a chance to help choose who should govern society. Yet back in May 2005, when the last election took place, just 16% of people with a learning disability who were eligible to vote actually did so – compared with 61% of the general population.
This disparity could have been avoided. Recent research by Mencap and United Response has shown that many people with a learning disability were excluded from the democratic process for specific reasons. A lack of accessible material, complex language, and a low awareness of their legal right to vote meant that at least half a million people with a learning disability failed to have their say.
The next general election must take place before 3 June 2010, but is predicted to happen even earlier. And this time the learning disability community is determined to make its voice heard. In November 2009, Mencap launched 'Get my vote', a campaign calling on the political parties to produce easy read versions of their manifestos and prospective MPs to make their campaigns as accessible as possible.
The campaign reinforces the work of disability charity United Response, which is running a three-year project funded by the Electoral Commission. 'Every Vote Counts' is aiming for a 40% turnout for people with a learning disability in the forthcoming election.
Getting the message
Together, Mencap and United Response have put forward an Early Day Motion (EDM), a parliamentary tool to help ensure that MPs and political parties get the accessibility message. "So far, over 130 MPs have signed up to support the EDM," says Peter Hand, Mencap's senior parliamentary officer. However, the task facing learning disability charities is a daunting one.
"Even parliament's education and outreach unit has only recently committed to producing four easy-read guides in time for the election," says Peter. "And there aren't any fully accessible Changing Places toilets in the parliamentary buildings at Westminster." The problem, it seems, stretches right to the heart of government.
However, this is all the more reason to be ambitious. "People with learning disabilities are so often underestimated," says Su Sayer, chief executive of United Response. "Just 20 years ago, it was seen as nearly impossible that they could live independently, let alone get a job or play a full role in their communities. And yet many now do all three. We have to be equally ambitious about voting – beginning with the target of a 40% turnout."