Disabled Adults ‘Denied The Vote’

An Irish group representing adults with learning disabilities has accused the Electoral Office of effectively disenfranchising its clients. There are currently 17 people attending the Prospects Day Centre in Ballybot House where they receive training in social and life skills.

However, while there is no legislation barring those with learning disabilities from voting, Eve Carragher of Prospects told the Democrat that many of her clients have been prevented from doing so in the past – and she fears for their rights in the upcoming Assembly elections.

“I’ve been told of cases where someone with learning disabilities has gone to cast their vote, only for their carer to be asked at the centre if they know who they’re voting for and if they under-stand the electoral process,” Ms Carragher said.

Problems have also arisen in relation to the completion of electoral registration forms, according to Prospects’ Sheila McComish. “When some people went to renew their registration, they were asked about their capacity to vote,” Ms McComish explained. “And if someone is unable to write and their carer signs on their behalf, again questions have been raised.

“Unfortunately, people who may have no experience of those with learning disabilities are acting as judge and jury on other people’s ability to vote.” Prospects has raised its concerns with the Electoral Office on several occasions, Ms Carragher said, and has suggested that use of a picture of each candidate on the voting form – as is the practice in the Republic . However, she claimed that the group has not received a satisfactory response, with some letters going unanswered.

Ms McComish said her clients are angry about the issue, with many feeling that they are being discriminated against. “Society has already put them at the bottom of the pile but they’re adults with the right to vote and the right to decide who represents them,” she added.

These sentiments were echoed by one of those attending Prospects, who did not wish to be identified. “I’m a citizen too, I have the right to vote,” he said. “We’re people too and have the same rights as everyone else.”

The call for a change regarding those with learning disabilities was echoed by Mickey Brady, Sinn Fein’s community empowerment spokesman. “Unfortunately, the worst effect of disenfranchisement on these young people is not the stigma it attaches to those with learning disabilities, but the fact that it prevents them from having a voice in national politics. “They have effectively been disempowered,” Mr Brady insisted.

Responding, Douglas Bain, the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland, said he is committed to doing everything possible to remove barriers preventing any groups from voting or registering to vote.“I’m conscious of the needs of those with disabilities and benefit from meetings I hold with groups representing them. I would be happy to discuss these issues with Prospects.”