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Failing to engage disabled people in the referendum

This opinion piece is over 9 years old

Bill Scott explains why disabled people will be some of the missing million who don't turn up to polling stations in September for the independence referendum

Bill Scott, Inclusion Scotland
Bill Scott, Inclusion Scotland

Disabled people make up one fifth of Scotland’s population but are often overlooked by politicians. They are a "Missing Million” in fact! Yet winning a majority of disabled people’s votes could easily swing the outcome of the Referendum.

It’s probable that disabled people make up a substantial portion of the 1 million Scots who aren’t planning to vote. That’s because they are more likely than non-disabled people to live on the peripheral estates where electoral registration is lowest. But it’s also because so many barriers are placed in disabled people’s path to democratic participation.

Political parties still hold far too many of their meetings in inaccessible venues and disabled people’s access issues are seldom recognised by the parties, far less addressed.

There are very few role models in either Parliament for young disabled people to emulate – Dennis Robertson and Siobhan McMahon being notable exceptions. That’s why Inclusion Scotland lobbied for the creation of a Scottish Parliament Intern scheme, so that young disabled people might aspire to become parliamentarians themselves.

I think there's a massive failure of imagination on the part of both campaigns

People with learning difficulties (and many older and non-disabled citizens as well!) find the whole electoral process confusing especially with so many different systems in use – First Past the Post (Westminster); Additional Member (Holyrood); Single Transferable Vote (local councils) and Closed List (European Parliament). Some people end up not participating out of fear of embarrassing themselves.

Finally for many years polling stations and the ballot paper itself were inaccessible to physically and visually impaired disabled people. Although that has been addressed of late it’s left a legacy of non-registration.

However another issue has to be the failure of both the yes and no campaigns to properly engage with disabled people. Will we be “Better (off) Together” or will we achieve “Independent living in an independent Scotland”? The truth is we don’t know because neither campaign has really addressed the question of what’s in it for disabled people and if we don’t know why should we care?

I congratulate both campaigns for producing their campaign materials in a number of accessible formats – Easy Read, BSL and Braille. It’s a pity then that so little of the messages contained in them are aimed at disabled people.

Disabled people don’t even merit a mention in the UK Government’s Scotland in the UK: the Best of Both Worlds. In contrast there are a few references to disabled people in the Scottish Government’s enormous White Paper on Scotland’s Future. However most of those mentions are confined to commitments to getting rid of the Bedroom Tax and to keeping Disability Living Allowance. Both of these policies would be much welcomed but hardly cover the huge range of issues of concern to disabled people – like health and social care; accessible transport and housing; education and access to employment (over half of disabled people of working age are workless).

I think that’s a massive failure of imagination on the part of both campaigns. Surely they should have something more to say about what disabled people can expect either in, or out, of the union. Instead, as usual, the needs of disabled people seems to be an after-thought. My plea? Please paint us a future that includes us so that we can make an informed choice. You never know, the first one to do that might convince us that it’s worth registering to vote.

Bill Scott is policy director Inclusion Scotland.

This is part of a series of TFN articles that focus on the #Missingmillion people who are not intending to vote in the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September.