Voting As A Disabled Person: Wheelchair User Edition

Recently, I voted in the election of the West Midlands Mayor and Police and Crime Commissioner, and this reminded me exactly what it’s like voting as a disabled person, so I thought I would discuss the experience. I will be discussing this most recent experience and one other.

It all starts with registering and preparing to vote. This is something I have to do every time I move to a new location. As a student for the past half decade, I have moved a lot so you can understand that’s a lot of registering to vote. Then, maybe a couple of weeks before the election, I am sent my polling card which includes my polling location where I need to go to vote. It literally says ON THIS CARD, that those with access needs should call to check  the accessibility of their polling station. This begs the questions, why not just make all polling stations accessible? Like, as far as I understand it someone selects the polling stations, so why not just pick accessible locations, surely that would be easier than fielding 100s of calls from disabled voters? On this occasion, I called 2 days before the election and provided all my information, to be told that my polling station was accessible.

Then comes the mission of actually getting TO your polling station as a disabled person. The accessible route somewhere is not always the same as someone else’s route. On this occasion, maps informed me that my polling station was a 5 minute walk down one straight road. However, roadworks with poor disabled access, specifically pavements with a distinct lack of drop kerbs, meant a 5 minute trip was more like 20 minutes. The polling station was also poorly signposted, so poorly signposted that I actually missed it on my first time walking past because the signs were so small, and I am just ridiculously unobservant so I cannot imagine how it is for someone who is visually impaired. I was also randomly accosted by a woman , but I will be discussing THAT incident (and others) in an upcoming post regarding experiencing harassment as a disabled person.

Then I FINALLY got to the point of requiring access to the actual polling station. Whenever a venue of any kind simply tells me they are “accessible” without any details I always wonder what they mean by that. This time, I approached the polling station and instantly saw stairs with no ramp in sight and sighed, assuming I had been misinformed regarding accessibility. But then I spotted an alternative access sign and a stair lift that looked about 400 years old. I got in and pressed the up button but it didn’t move. Luckily, I was able to ask a fellow voter to inform the staff inside that I needed to get in and just assumed the staff would have to turn the lift on. Then someone comes out and their sentence begins with “unfortunately…”. It was at that point I  knew already that the lift did not work. It turned out the  lack of use over lockdown had led to the battery burning out, it is so BIZARRE what happens when you don’t use a piece of equipment for an extended period of time (heavy sarcasm, I could have told you from the start that would happen). I then asked for the ballot papers and boxes to be brought outside, which they were, this meant I was still able to vote, albeit with absolutely ZERO privacy or independence.

2022 Update: I called ahead to the council helpline to check that the polling station was CURRENTLY accessible given the the situation last year (see above), specifically asking if it was accessible for the upcoming elections. The call handler found my polling station, went away and came back to say it was accessible. For clarification, I asked if it was CURRENTLY accessible, and explained what had happened last year. I was then told “well you didn’t ask that?!” and “do you want to know if it’s currently accessible then?” I thought it was clear enough that that was my intention when I asked if the polling station was accessible for the UPCOMING elections. but apparently not. The call handler then suggested contacting the polling station directly (something I thought she would do, given that this was a helpline meant to give out information about polling station accessibility) but she just started reeling the phone number off from Google (where I could have found it myself).

Can someone explain to me, what is the point of a helpline for information on polling station accessibility, if their response to a request for CURRENT, ACCURATE access information is “here’s the phone number from Google, ask them yourselves”? Although disabled people are often expected to do all the work when it comes to finding accessibility information, so I can’t say that this response was remotely surprising. Oh, and to top it off, when I called the polling station no one picked up!

Long story short, guess who’s given up chasing people for BASIC information and decided she’s just turning up on the day and demanding she be able to access an in person vote? *raises hand*. Catch me being an absolute menace, and likely annoying someone at least once, on May 5th.

2022 update v2: Arrived at the polling station discover *gasps in fake shock*… the lift was out of action! After asking someone who was entering the polling station to alert staff to my presence, a staff member came out to verify what the issue and take my polling card. Then they came out with a polling card which I had to fill out, fold up and hand back to be taken back inside to be placed into the ballot box by the staff member.

Needless to say, I rang the council once I got home. I informed them they’d need to remove my polling station from whatever “accessible polling stations” list they have, since it obviously WASN’T and ISN’T. That complaint has been logged so now we’ll see what they do. Bets for their response being to do a whole lot of sod all?

It also bears saying that even when polling stations are “accessible”, that access is still dodgy as hell. During a  previous experience (voting in a different constituency, that of our current Prime Minister no less), the wheelchair access to the polling station was a very makeshift wooden ramp. I was able to enter the polling station fine, but when I tried to get out, the ramp slipped and I ended up stuck suspended over a significant drop, praying my heavy electric wheelchair didn’t tip over and you know, crush me. And yes that’s just as terrifying to experience as it sounds.

Overall, what should have been a simple 15 minute job to vote recently took over an hour simply because of inaccessibility. I hope that my discussing this experience gives you some insight into the reality of voting as a disabled person.

Stay Invincible!

Em (Invincible Woman On Wheels)

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Experiencing Harassment and Stranger Interactions as a Disabled Woman | Invincible Woman on Wheels

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