You may not have noticed but we are in the midst of an election here in the UK. If you are reading this from outside our borders, be grateful it isn’t happening to you!
The impending election made me start to think about whether we, visually-impaired people, are disadvantaged in the electoral process.
One year, the RNIB made a point of advertising the fact that the three main parties had had their manifestos put into braille. They made it easy by giving you the numbers to ring so I rang and obtained all three documents. There was quite a lot to read, (I think Labour’s was the longest) but I did read them all the way through.
The RNIB haven’t, so far, mentioned any braille versions of the manifestos this year. I’m not sure I can muster sufficient enthusiasm to chase all the phone numbers this time but I suspect the same could be said for a lot of sighted voters. How many people do search out all the relevant manifestos and read them? I’m guessing it’s only a small percentage of the electorate.
Then there are the leaflets that come through the door. I have a sighted PA who would read these to me if I asked but am I going to ask? Probably not. It takes time that I could put to other uses. Many visually impaired people won’t have anyone to read these to them, though.
When it comes to canvassing on the doorstep, I am definitely on equal terms with my sighted neighbours. I can engage in a political argument…sorry, I mean, discussion…as well as anyone else and, provided they don’t turn up while I’m watching Ghost Adventures on television, I may do so.
The physical act of voting raises more issues. I know a number of visually impaired people who opt for a postal vote which they can get a trusted friend or relative to help them fill in.
This is a good idea but I like to exercise my democratic right to attend a polling station.
There is a system of assistance in place for visually impaired voters who want to vote at a polling station. I can ask at the desk for someone to help me and a member of staff will take me to the booth, read out all the names and put a cross where I ask them to.
I personally have no problem with this and I trust them to act according to my instructions. Of course, if there are other voters around, it isn’t entirely private. The booths aren’t sound-proofed. As I tend to be quite open about who I vote for, I don’t mind this but I could understand others not being happy with it. There are templates produced by RNIB which you can line up with the names on the ballot paper and which enable you to put your own cross on the form. I was only offered this once and I didn’t find it very easy to use but it did, at least, mean my vote was secret.
Latterly, I have gone to vote with a friend and been quite happy to let her put my cross in the desired box for me.
I don’t know if there is a perfect system but it is certainly the case that casting a totally secret vote when you can’t see where to put your cross is a challenge. This will matter to some more than others but perhaps we should be giving more thought to this question. After all, that little cross is at the heart of our democracy.