The vast majority of people with learning disabilities don’t vote, but given the extent to which government decisions impact on them, projects to encourage more to vote are very welcome.
It could be argued that people with learning disabilities are one of the groups most affected by government decisions. Decisions on health, housing, welfare, employment, social care and a range of other issues often have a direct impact on people with learning disabilities and their supporters.
Such things as welfare reform and social care cuts have been reported to hit people with disabilities disproportionally hard. At least 25% of the cuts target the 3% of the population with the most severe disabilities, according to think-tank the Centre for Welfare Reform.
Yet, in general, people with learning disabilities do not vote: a survey by service provider Dimensions found that only 10% of its service users voted in the 2010 general election.
So it was heartening to see that in the past week Mencap has secured government funding for a project to encourage people with learning disabilities to vote. ‘Me and My Vote’ will create resources for people with a learning disability and develop a model for one-to-one support for individuals, families and carers, to encourage and enable engagement with the democratic process, including registering to vote.
This adds to other campaigns encouraging people with learning disabilities to vote, such as Dimensions’ ‘Love Your Vote’ campaign, which sees them working alongside the Houses of Parliament Outreach Service, and has been running since last summer. The campaign has included holding workshops, open to people supported by Dimensions and the wider learning disability community, to explain the parliamentary process and how to vote.
Anything that helps people with learning disabilities to engage with politics and its processes should be welcomed. While there are people with learning disabilities active in politics, either as advisers, campaigners or as elected councillors – Gavin Harding, who was elected onto Selby Town Council in 2011, springs to mind – who do some great work, there should be many more.
While cynical voices may take the Russell Brand approach and question the point of voting, saying that it makes no difference to what happens, that misses the point. There are about 1 million adults with learning disabilities in the UK. That’s a pretty big number of potential voters – certainly enough to make politicians take notice if they vote in big enough numbers.
Given the perception among some that people with learning disabilities are not a priority for the government – the early wind-down of Valuing People Now in 2011 without a replacement strategy is an oft-cited example of this – then getting involved in politics and making politicians listen directly is a good way to push issues up the political agenda.
With the effects of welfare reform, social care cuts and housing reform affecting many people with learning disabilities and their carers, getting engaged with politics has never been more important – if you want change, voting is one way to make it happen. People with learning disabilities cannot afford to remain uninvolved.