Democracy and doing down disabled people

Democracy and doing down disabled people

Whatever the outcome of the pending general election, Peter White says the result will be a bad one for disabled voters.

Despite cash for questions, dodgy expenses claims, and MPs who rarely open their mouths, let alone say something sensible, we’re still very pleased with our democracy in this country.
As the so-called short campaign finally gets going, it won’t be long before you hear someone trotting out the (incorrect) claim that we have the oldest parliamentary democracy in the world. And anyway, even if it isn’t the oldest (probably Iceland is), then it’s certainly the best. We’re rather fond of claiming that we have the best of things. Best football league, best countryside, most tolerant people, barely ever bothering to examine the evidence too closely to see if these claims have the smallest justification in fact. So that when for example people point to the fact that almost everybody has a vote (the very least you could expect, surely, in 2015), very few stop to point out that for many disabled people that does not mean a vote cast independently (and privately) and that very few of those we are invited to vote for share our experience of life.

Let’s deal with the latter first. Women still rightly bemoan the fact that despite being slightly more than 50 per cent of the population they still, despite recent improvements, only have around 20 per cent of the representation among MPs.

But if you operated the same principle relating to disabled people, 20 per cent would look like an absolute glut. Disability figures are notoriously hard to obtain and rely on. There’s too much disagreement about what actually constitutes disability but even at a very conservative (with a small c of course) estimate there ought, if representation is to reflect incidence in the population, to be somewhere in the region of 60 MPs. Even allowing for those who choose not to make public their disabilities we are nowhere near that figure.

As for those with physical disabilities, we’re dealing with a tiny single-figure number of sitting MPs: David Blunkett (about to stand down), Anne Begg, Paul Maynard, Robert Halfon, some might count Gordon Brown, although he almost certainly wouldn’t count himself. And they wouldn’t necessarily see themselves as representing disabled people, in the way that most women in parliament now actively take the opportunity of putting the gender point of view. There’s still that idea among disabled MPs that it somehow weakens their standing if they pitch in on the side of disabled people. Mr Blunkett quite openly in his early days would say, “I’m not here as a representative of disabled people, all MPs should represent all their constituents.” This is an understandable point of view but not too helpful when a group is so under-represented in the first place. Its a point of view I sense he has modified in recent years, just as he’s going.

Paul Maynard did strike a blow on his own account when he called out Labour MPs for “pulling silly faces and putting on silly voices,” crassly mocking his cerebral palsy. But MPs with disabilities still don’t seem to see it as their role to fly the flag. Charles Walker and Kevin Jones did famously make a name for themselves by ‘coming out’ as people who had definable psychiatric conditions. OCD in the case of Walker, depression in the case of Jones but despite the statistical likelihood of their being only two of many, there’s been no general rush to self-revelation.

And it seems unlikely that the next parliament will see those numbers raised appreciably. Figures are hard to come by and I’ve only been able to find them for the Lib Dems who reckon that of their almost 600 prospective parliamentary candidates, around five per cent declare themselves as having a disability, compared to around three per cent in 2010. Emily Brothers is standing as a blind, trans-gender MP for Labour but Sutton and Cheam will be a hard nut to crack for any Labour candidate.

But surely even more significantly, despite warm words at the start of every election, it seems many disabled voters will experience difficulty and often embarrassment trying to cast their own vote independently. For a start many polling-stations are simply found, or not found, in inaccessible places: up alleys, down lanes, with the inevitable flights of steps, and with polling-booths in which you couldn’t swing a cat, let alone a wheelchair.

There are supposed to be tactile templates at every polling-station so that visually impaired voters can mark the candidate of their choice, having once established the order in which the candidates are placed. All too often these templates aren’t in place and we often hear of cases where the volunteers at polling-stations don’t understand the level of help they’re allowed to offer.
Voting by post is of course an option, but for many, the excitement of the occasion and the feeling of participation is part of the point.

There are technological solutions in the digital age, but of course the best electoral system in the world has to operate at a snail’s pace to introduce anything so radical as electronic voting, or phone-voting with a tailor-made and private pin number. We may well have a hung parliament, but it will be interesting to calculate how many votes of disabled people aren’t registered as they fall foul of bumbling bureaucracy, and give up in frustration.

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