Barbara Waterman was born 13 years after the Representation of the People Act gave women over 30 the right to vote in 1918. But it was not until three years ago, in the 2015 election, at the age of 83, that she finally used that right. Until then, Waterman thought she was barred because of her learning disability. Her belief that universal suffrage didn’t extend to people such as her is not uncommon, according to Dimensions, a charity that runs a scheme to help and encourage people with learning disabilities and autism to vote. What changed for Waterman was that she became involved in the charity’s Love Your Vote scheme. It gave her a “voting passport”: a document that provides instructions for polling station staff regarding how she would like to be assisted to vote. After studying Easy Read manifestos produced by each of the political parties online, Waterman was supported to cast her vote for the first time in 2015, then again in June 2017. “The voting passport helped me remember what to do when I got to the place where you vote,” says Waterman.
While, legally, universal suffrage has been achieved for all undetained citizens over the age of 18, many people still find it difficult to vote in elections. Ciara Lawrence, campaigns officer at the learning disability charity, Mencap – who has a learning disability herself – says: “Even today some people still question whether we have capacity or can make decisions on who to vote for. This is insulting and wrong. We have a right to vote like anyone else, but still face huge barriers.”
People with physical disabilities can face problems voting, with 67% of polling stations not being accessible. And blind or partially sighted people are often hindered in their attempts to even make it on to the electoral roll by registration forms that are not easy to read.