Posted by Carl Shaw at 23/03/2015 15:42:08
On Tuesday 3 February I went to the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Learning Disability to talk about politics. Normally I feel quite confident about public speaking but I was getting nervous because I was going to the Houses of Parliament, not to work, or to see my friends, but to the 19 century gothic palace where our politicians spend most of their time! I imagined myself sitting in a room full of politicians who took no notice of what I had to say and talked among themselves.
When I got there Parliament looked like an airport. There were security guards and metal detectors to scan your baggage. I found our Public Affairs Officer, Anastasia, and our Head of Marketing and Communications, Sanchi, who were also coming to the APPG which made me feel more at ease. I knew if I made a mistake they’d both be there with me. Anastasia said she was nervous so I told her not to worry because the MPs are just people like us.
We made our way to the room where the APPG was meeting. The room was really full. Anastasia said there were over a hundred people there. Everyone was very friendly and it felt like I was at an everyday Dimensions event amongst people I felt comfortable with.
There were MPs and Peers in the room but, to be honest, if they hadn’t said their titles you wouldn’t have known because everyone seemed equal, with just as much right to speak and share their opinion as anyone else.
When it was my chance to speak I talked about the challenges I’ve had understanding what politicians are talking about. I told them how difficult the registration process was, how little accessible information is available and how disinterested politicians often seem. The people we support are all being affected by politics. The decisions politicians make, be it cuts to benefits, or the cost of public transport or investment in the NHS affect us all. If people with learning disabilities can’t find accessible information about politics then we are cut out of the decision making process that shapes our lives.
You could sense the anger in the room. There were so many people with learning disabilities who were passionate about politics. It felt like we were all there for the same reason.
I was really impressed by the MPs on the day. I expected them to do most of the talking but instead it felt like they were really listening to us. One of them, Mark Harper, kept referring to things I’d said which made me think he’d taken notice. The first step to creating change is to make sure politicians start listening to people with learning disabilities. The only way to do that is to get involved, speak up and make your voice heard. Somebody once told me ‘the world is changed by those who turn up’. If we don’t register, if we don’t vote then how can we expect politicians to listen to us. There are almost 1 million people in the UK who have a learning disability, we are strong, we just don’t realise it yet.
We're doing a lot with our Love Your Vote campaign to help make politics more accessible but it's important to register to vote so you can take part in the general election.
I am beginning to wonder if we’re in the midst of what we’ll look back on and regard as a time of great significance. Following on from Simon Stevens’ recent and very welcome announcement regarding closing ATUs, today we’re witnessing the release by the Learning Disabilities Alliance of “Quality Checking Government”, a poll of 2000 members of the learning disability community, half of whom have a learning disability themselves.
The LDA’s end-of-term report does not make for pleasant reading, but I don’t think any of us who work with people with learning disabilities are surprised. The themes – such as work, money and social inclusion – are familiar and with marks averaging just 2 out of 10 from the 2000 respondents one would reasonably predict a CQC rating of “inadequate”. Indeed, such a poor performance would see CQC putting the government into “special measures”.
However this is not the first government we’ve experienced that would be given such a low score. For generations, people with learning disabilities have been shunned, shut away in awful places, excluded from society and generally treated as second class citizens. So why are they so consistently overlooked? Why have so many politicians of every persuasion got so many policies so wrong?
Last night, Newsnight asked why so many policies aimed at improving life for pensioners are being announced in the run up to the election. The hypothesis is that older people are a sizeable proportion of the electorate, and they vote, and so parties must try to win that vote. Well, a million people in this country have a learning disability – with their families they represent about 10% of the electorate. That’s a lot of potential voters!
But, our research in 2012 found that just 10% of people with learning disabilities voted in their last election. It’s worth considering if many more people with a learning disability voted how different things might be. That’s why Dimensions, along with Mencap and United Response, have been leading a number of campaigns aimed at encouraging people with learning disabilities and their families to vote on May 7th.
I hope that “Quality Checking Government” is taken seriously. It deserves to be, as it provides a really important baseline. In future years the learning disability community can use this report to judge if progress has been made – and then they will be able to hold politicians to account via the ballot box.
And that’s why I’m wondering if the launch of “Quality Checking Government” today may be one of those significant moments we’ll look back on. The learning disability community may be about to find its voice. But no vote, no influence. Pass it on.