Ground-breaking, Australian first research from La Trobe University’s Living with Disability Research Centre has called for more support for people with intellectual disability when it’s time to head to the polling booths.
The report titled Strategies to Support People with Intellectual Disabilities to Participate in Voting was funded by the National, New South Wales, Western Australian, ACT, Queensland and South Australian Electoral Commissions and was led by the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) and Inclusion Melbourne.
A survey of 45 people with intellectual disability found limited support from family members and carers was a key barrier to electoral participation.
Other barriers included little attention given to issues of voting by disability organisations or lack of encouragement to their staff to provide support and uncertainty of disability support staff about the legitimacy of some types of voting support they might provide.
As part of the research, 102 staff members in the disability sector completed an online survey to share their attitudes about the voting rights of people with intellectual disability and their experience providing support.
The findings revealed only 22 staff (or 35 percent) whose work involved direct support had ever supported a person with intellectual disability to vote and a majority had received no guidance about this from their organisation.
To change this, the report recommends support from family members for voting, staff willingness to provide some types of support for voting and staff acknowledgement of the rights of people with intellectual disabilities to vote.
Research Lead at La Trobe University, Professor Christine Bigby says it is essential that families and staff acknowledge the voting rights of people with intellectual disability.
“Low expectations from staff and family, and doubts about their capacity to understand voting were found to be the major drivers of people with intellectual disabilities not participating in elections,” Professor Bigby says.
“On the other hand, the capacity-building initiative piloted by La Trobe and the VEC in the lead up to the November 2018 State election showed that by up-skilling staff in disability organisations, voter participation among people with disabilities increased.”
Victorian Electoral Commissioner, Warwick Gately AM, says the research plays an important role in designing strategies to empower and enfranchise people with disabilities who have previously lacked support when it comes to voting.
“This report shows definitively that we must continue to work with disability organisations and build the capacity of their staff to support people with intellectual disabilities to engage in democracy,” Mr Gately says.
“We will also implement strategies to engage and educate families about voting rights with the aim of achieving equal rights to participation.
“Other electoral commissions will also be able to consider the research findings in developing strategies to support people with disability to exercise their rights to vote in their jurisdictions,” he says.
The report also recommends electoral commissions note the role that law reform might play in removing families’ and carers’ doubts about who has the right to vote and that peer education is further explored and piloted to build the individual capacity of people with intellectual disabilities.
You can read the full report here.