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Voting

The right to independent and secret voting and key policies of interest to blind and partially sighted are discussed by BBC's political correspondent Gary O'Donoghue.

Rachael Andrews wanted to vote in the general election held in 2015, but when she and her blind husband arrived at her polling station, the device that was supposed to be in place to help them vote secretly and independently couldn't be found. She launched a legal challenge against her local authority to try to change the situation. She tells us why and what the outcome was.

Don't worry if you haven't waded through all seven political party manifestoes, BBC political correspondent Gary O'Donoghue has, and he'll be picking out some of the key policies of interest to blind and partially sighted people.

In the RNIB's latest survey of blind and partially sighted voters, half say they weren't able to vote secretly or independently on polling day. Campaign manager Hugh Huddy tells us what the RNIB is doing to change this situation.

Back in March, listener Ian Brooks was offered a job interview as a programmer, until the company heard he had a guide dog, when the interview was cancelled. Three months on, and ian's back to tell us what happened next.

Presenter: Peter White
Producer: Lee Kumutat.

Available now

20 minutes

IN TOUCH TRANSCRIPT - TX: 06.06.2017


Downloaded from www.bbc.co.uk/radio4

 

THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT.  BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

 

 

IN TOUCH – Voting

 

TX:  06.06.2017  2040-2100

 

PRESENTER:           PETER WHITE

 

PRODUCER:             LEE KUMUTAT

 

 

White

With just two days to go before the General Election Gary O’Donoghue has been combing through the manifestos to see what they have to say about visual impairment and how easily blind and partially sighted people could read them. 

 

And we hear from the man whose employment prospects have gone from the floor to the ceiling.  How did that happen?

 

But first, at the last General Election Rachael Andrews went to cast her vote.  She wanted what most people want – the chance to vote independently and in secret.  But what happened next mirrored a number of cases that we’ve heard about and featured after many recent general elections. 

 

Andrews

My husband and myself and my mother-in-law, who’s fully sighted, my husband’s blind, we turned up at the polling station to vote, we went in, we handed over our polling cards and when I said I will need the tactile voting device.  Which was met with some confusion and silence and a – I don’t know about that, I’ve never heard about it.  And I said, well it’s a legal requirement and I will need it as my husband will also need it in order to vote as a sight impaired person.

 

White

And this is a device which enables you, it’s like a template, and it enables you to know and be able to mark the spot of the person you want to vote for?

 

Andrews

Yes that’s correct.  It has flaps that you lift up and you have to count down to pick your candidate.

 

White

So what happened next?

 

Andrews

Well another chap came over and I repeated my request and he said – Ooh we don’t have one.  And I said, well it’s a legal requirement you must have one and I need it to vote, so could you go and look.  So he went away for about 10 seconds, I would estimate, came back and said, no we don’t have it.  And he said, well we don’t have one, end of story, do you want to vote or not?  And I said, well yeah of course I do.  I said I’d prefer my mother-in-law to help me and so she did.

 

White

Some people seem to have got the idea that you need to make an appointment at the polling station if you need any extra help.  Now that isn’t correct, presumably you expected just to turn up and be able to vote?

 

Andrews

I did, exactly.  I mean I’ve been voting as a visually-impaired person for a long time and in the past we have had issues where they’ve not known about the tactile voting device but they have made an effort, they’ve sometimes had the wrong device, cut it up so that I’ll fit and been very, very unhelpful but unfortunately in this circumstance they were not interested at all.

 

White

So what did you do afterwards?

 

Andrews

I came home and phoned the local electoral department at the council to make a complaint and I said, can you tell me why you didn’t have this device.  They said, they should have had it.  I said, yes I know but could you tell me why they didn’t have it.  And they said, well we’ll get back to you next week because obviously we’re busy at the moment.  So I let that go.  Story went on and then in a couple of weeks’ time I got back to them and said, can you please categorically tell me why you didn’t have this item, it’s a legal requirement.  And they said, well we can only apologise and perhaps the presiding officer was too busy to look for it.

 

White

So you decided to take action basically.

 

Andrews

I did yes.  I contacted the RNIB and they put me on to a legal firm who helped me basically start a legal process.  And eventually we settled out of court with the council.

 

White

What’s the fundamental point you feel that you’ve made here?

 

Andrews

I think fundamentally my frustration was not only with their attitude that they didn’t have it and that was the end of the story but I feel personally as a disabled person that discrimination due to disability is something that’s often basically ignored and the reasonable response from a lot of companies and a lot of bodies seems to be oh I’m sorry we didn’t know, we won’t do it again.  And I felt that it really needed to be taken further and that some legal action to actually uphold the law that’s already in place needed to be taken.

 

White

Rachael Andrews.

 

Well we asked Rachael’s local council to respond.  They told us:  “We have apologised to Mrs Andrews in relation to her voting experience during the 2015 General Election and as a result we’ve improved our voting systems for all our visually-impaired residents.  On the occasions that Mrs Andrews has voted since we’ve liaised closely with her to support her to vote more confidently and independently. 

 

Well so said Broadland District Council.  It is important to say that this was a settlement not a court decision, that means it doesn’t set a precedent for other cases.  But the Representation of the People Act does give the right of secrecy and independence already. 

 

Well the RNIB has been campaigning on this issue for some time now and as with previous elections they surveyed visually-impaired voters about their experiences, both of casting their vote and access to election material, like campaign literature.

 

Hugh Huddy, of the RNIB, explained what the survey had found.

 

Huddy

The key findings were that half of the blind and partially sighted people said they didn’t feel able to vote independently or in secret and those are the two things which are fundamental to our voting system in this country.  So that remains a concern because the previous year’s survey, in 2015, showed almost exactly the same number.

 

White

Doesn’t that mean the policy of bringing out surveys to draw people’s attention to what’s going wrong just isn’t working?

 

Huddy

It’s not the surveys that are wrong.  What the surveys are doing is enabling blind and partially sighted people to say what their experience is.

 

White

Electronic voting is happening in quite a lot of parts of the world, it’s certainly happening in the States, wouldn’t a full-on campaign for that be the way to go?

 

Huddy

Yes, we have been making representations to the Cabinet Office and to the Electoral Commission for a long time now that accessible voting systems that are used in other countries need to be looked at and the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee back in 2015, which I remember giving evidence to at the time, also recommended that different ways of voting need to be explored, for the whole population, not just for blind and partially sighted people.

 

White

I mean I guess what I’m suggesting, you could be taking more direct action than you appear to be taking.

 

Huddy

The action that we’re taking is not necessarily all in the public domain.  The action we’re taking is directly to the Cabinet Office, to the Electoral Commission.  There have been a number of legal cases over the last few years which RNIB has been involved with.  I think what we’re trying to highlight, behind the scenes as much as in the front of the scenes, we’ve had a campaign running for years and we, like many organisations, we’re wanting the next election to be the most accessible election ever.  We’re surveying again and we will be working with blind and partially sighted people afterwards if they don’t get an accessible election.

 

White

Hugh Huddy of the RNIB.

 

So what about the actual content of the election campaign?  We asked BBC political correspondent, Gary O’Donoghue, who is of course blind himself, to find out how accessible the political party manifestos were and what was in them.  But first, just how much has disability and particularly issues likely to affect visually-impaired voters, featured in the debate so far?

 

O’Donoghue

Well very little in a sense because it’s a particularly difficult election in normal circumstance, isn’t it, it was an election called at the last minute, it’s an election really that’s focused on some very narrow range of issues, specifically and deliberately done so by the parties.  So on the one hand you’ve got the Conservatives wanting to focus on Brexit and leadership issues; you’ve got the Labour Party wanting to focus on public services.  So the compressed nature of the campaign and this sort of impetus on both sides of the main parties, and other parties too, to narrow the range of things that are discussed means that disability hasn’t had much of a look-in really.  It did get a rather high profile look-in, if you like, last Friday during one of those special question time debates when a woman recounted her experience of the Work Capability Assessment and she was very emotional about that and told Theresa May how she’d been treated and she actually had a sight problem as well.  So it did come up then and of course that is something that the parties do have something to say about.

 

White

Of course always of natural concern to blind and partially sighted people are disability benefits.  How much difference is there between party policies on this?

 

O’Donoghue

Things like, for example, Personal Independence Payments, that is something that clearly the Conservatives are very keen on pushing through and continuing to move people off the old DLA on to PIPs.  Some of the parties are not happy about the assessment process, so Labour’s talked about getting rid of that, as have people like the Greens and the Liberal Democrats and the SNP.  There’s also some specifics in the Labour manifesto, for example, they’re talking about adding £30 to Employment Support Allowance for those in the work related group.  So there’s some very specific ones in that.  And the Scottish National Party, interestingly, are talking about no means testing of disability benefits which is interesting because we don’t really see many disability benefits means tested at the moment.

 

White

And what about employment because in a way with the Work Capability Assessment that’s both a benefits issue and an employment issue isn’t it?

 

O’Donoghue

Yes it is and most of the parties, including the minor parties, have got sections where they deal with the disability in work.  So, for example, the Green Party want a general principle where people don’t work more than four days a week, that would obviously impact disabled people.  The Conservatives are talking about getting a million disabled people back into work over the next 10 years.  And other parties are talking about improving access to work, the Liberal Democrats are talking about that and Plaid Cymru are talking about improving access to work for disabled people as well.  One of the parties is talking about extending access to work to people who are self-employed, which of course they can already apply for.

 

White

Which does suggest sometimes that perhaps some of the parties don’t know maybe as much about the benefits system and disability affairs as they might.

 

O’Donoghue

I think that’s right and I think, as I say, this is a very rushed election, a very sort of compressed timetable and I suspect a lot of this stuff had to be dashed out in something of a rush and may not be entirely thought through.

 

White

The picture you’re painting is of quite a lot of agreement, if you like, between the parties.  What are the differences?  I mean they can’t all be saying the same thing on everything.

 

O’Donoghue

No, I mean a lot of this of course is always about arguments over means to ends.  So the ends are often agree upon, yes of course people want more disabled people in work, they want better support for them, they want better access to information etc.  So it’s often an argument about the means to get there.  So the Conservatives, for example, are talking very specifically about sort of digital access to government and to other services and putting that in a sort of disability context is something that’s important for disabled people in particular.

 

White

What the idea that this kind of equipment could empower disabled people?

 

O’Donoghue

Yes and give you access to services, give you access to government and to what you might need to do when you interact with government in an independent way as a disabled person.  So that’s an interesting emphasis I think that you’re seeing from them.

 

Another difference in some of the approaches relates to things like education, for example.  So you’ve got the UK Independence Party talking about reversing what they call the policy on closing special schools.  Now, as far as I know, there isn’t a policy on closing special schools but it’s interesting that they focus on that part of it.  Whereas a lot of the other parties, particularly the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats too and the Greens, talking more about improving inclusive education, improving the sort of facilities and the funding for people in mainstream schools.

 

White

Much of the campaign of course has centred on Brexit and one issue to be settled still is incorporating EU law into UK law.  There’s quite a lot of EU legislation relating to disability isn’t there, what do we learn from the manifestos about that?

 

O’Donoghue

Well that – this is a really uncharted area, so of course the Conservatives are talking about a great repeal bill going through when Brexit happens and effectively incorporates European law into British law.  But of course at that point, and during that process, I’m sure, there will be opportunities to change the kinds of provisions that Europe held sway over.  So that will be I think an area where the disability groups will be doing a lot of lobbying.  There’s also, of course, the Conservatives talking about repealing the Human Rights Act and replacing that with something else, I think disability groups will be interested in that.  Whereas you’ve got people like the Labour Party and the SNP and others talking about specifically holding on to the Human Rights Act, which I think some disabled people will regard as a positive thing.

 

White

How did you read these manifestos Gary?

 

O’Donoghue

Well I read them largely online and they are online and the Labour Party and the Greens, for example, have specific disability manifestos online, quite shortish documents – the Labour one, I think, was 25 pages; the Green one was just five pages.  So those were online.  Most of the other manifestos are online as well, in fact they all are, some of them are offering alternative formats – audio, for example, I think the SNP were saying their audio one’s about to be available; others suggest you can have that on request.  I think I only say perhaps one or two where Braille, specifically hard copy Braille, was available on request but of course by this time it’s a little bit late.

 

White

And is this part of the reason for this do you think – the sudden calling of the election?

 

O’Donoghue

I think that’s partly it, I mean generally speaking in years gone by the parties have been pretty good on producing Braille, for example, I mean I remember getting Braille manifestos from all three parties in 1979.  So it’s not that they don’t know that this stuff is needed or is what people want.  But of course I think they – they like a lot of other organisations will think that access online now is where most people get their information.  And it’s a question of whether it’s made readable in a kind of comfortable way online and not just a sort of unlabelled pdf download which of course a lot of visually-impaired people struggle with.

 

White

Indeed.  Gary O’Donoghue.

 

And now back to the real world and some good news too.  The mantra of many visually-impaired job seekers is that half the battle when getting jobs is just to get to an interview.  And this was certainly true in the case of Ian Brooks.  Now you may recall that computer programmer Ian had an interview lined up with a prospective employer, it had been fixed up by an employment agency.  Ian disclosed his visual impairment to the agency and just as they were making the arrangements for Ian to go to an interview things began to go wrong for him.

 

Brooks

I got a call from the agent to say the client had cancelled my interview and told the agent they didn’t want a guide dog in the office because they didn’t think their landlord would allow it on the premises and secondly they don’t think there’s enough room for me and the dog in the office.

 

White

How did you feel about that?

 

Brooks

I just completely melted and I’m normally a quite strong determined sort of guy but I was crying inwardly and I was a raging bull basically, I was absolutely furious, being treated so badly because of my disability.

 

White

But Ian is back with us now to explain what’s happened since.

 

Brooks

My usual outlook on life is to – every obstacle I come across is to find a way around.  But with this particular problem I couldn’t find a way around it.  And I turned round to my wife one night, which really shocked her, and said to her, I said – you know what Cath, I can’t wait to die.  It made me feel so alone.

 

White

And that is such a serious thing for you to have told us that I’m bound to ask you – was it simply that rejection or were there perhaps other elements?

 

Brooks

It was simply because I felt worthless, I felt like I had no – nowhere to go in the rest of my life, nobody wanted to employ a blind programmer with a guide dog.

 

White

And yet Ian there has now been a positive outcome hasn’t there, tell us about that and what’s happened.

 

Brooks

Due to large exposure on social media a company called Conspexit in London heard about me, they got in contact with me via the RNIB and invited me in.  I went in on the 23rd May, spent a day with them, went out for a meal and was made a fuss of.  And then two days later they offered me a job.

 

White

And clearly that’s made an enormous difference to your attitude to life and to yourself?

 

Brooks

Well that’s right, yeah, I mean it really is a case of light and dark, for quite a while I was left in the dark and now my life is just – it’s just full of possibilities and I just can’t wait to get started.  A phrase I’ve been using is the fact that I’m now living in a world of possibilities rather than living a life of limitations.

 

White

I mean that’s – the message is clear in what you’ve said and the tone of your voice and the difference it’s made from an emotional point of view.  What about financially?

 

Brooks

It’s made a huge amount of difference to my life, well it will do.  I’ll now be able to save some money, I’ll be able to put some money aside for a pension ready – you know in the distant future.  Me and my wife will be able to live a decent life, go back to visit my friends in New York, eventually go and watch the Forty Niners play in San Francisco.  I’ll be able to help my daughters out.

 

White

Ian Brooks.  And I think you’ll agree he sounds like a changed man.

 

And talking of pensions just reminds me of a suggestion from listener Michael Kelly who’s contemplating retirement but he’s worrying whether he can find enough things to occupy his time.  He’d like your suggestions and so would we.  We also would like your comments and views about today’s programme.  You can call our action line on 0800 044 044 for 24 hours after the programme.  You can email intouch@bbc.co.uk or you can go online to download the podcast of tonight’s and many other editions of the programme.  That’s it from me, Peter White, producer Lee Kumutat and the team, goodbye.

 

 

 

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