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Accessibility of PCC candidate information by disabled people
Posted by 5th November 2012
access
05
Nov 2012

By Chris Rossiter

 

The forthcoming Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections have been a big topic of discussion recently. Regardless of how one feels about the value and purpose of these newly created roles, I doubt many people would argue against providing adequate information to the electorate.

 

PCCs will have extensive powers to set policing priorities and budgets, as well as hiring and firing the Chief Constable. This is an important change to how police services are currently managed, with the intention of making the police more ‘accountable’.

 

The Office for Disability Issues estimates that 11 million people in UK have ‘a limiting long term illness, impairment or disability’, so this is something that affects a substantial number of people. In addition recent reports suggest a substantial increase in the rates of disability hate crime. Therefore disabled people have just as much reason to take an interest in these elections as anyone else.

 

With this in mind you might be mistaken for thinking that candidates were heavily engaged with persuading members from across their communities, to vote for them and their plans. It is of course commonplace for individuals seeking election to explain their ideas in a manifesto or other published literature. The information for this election is heavily reliant on internet-based material such as websites, blogs and social media. The main public information sources on this election and the candidates are provided by the Electoral Commission online (www.aboutmyvote.co.uk or www.choosemypcc.org.uk).

 

The brief biographies offer little information, although some do provide links to external websites precisely for this reason.

 

My local area, the Thames Valley, has six candidates:

  • Anthony Stansfeld (Con)
  • Tim Starkey (Lab)
  • John Howson (LD)
  • Barry Cooper (UKIP)
  • Tayo Awe (Independent)
  • Geoff Howard (Independent)

 

Those candidates from the three main political parties all have well-established websites and for the most part the content is clear. However the websites of Barry Cooper and Tayo Awe are less clear, and Geoff Howard’s biography lists no website at all.

 

Using screen-readers and other assistive technology I have been able to access the content on all available websites, except in the case of Tayo Awe; this content was not accessible at all. Those with visual impairments or restrictions to mobility or dexterity can have difficulty using conventional IT, but so can those with a specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia or dyspraxia, and so many utilise technology of this kind.

 

That said not everyone can afford or has access to information technology, an Internet connection, or the software needed to read text aloud or make changes to the way text is displayed.

 

An alternative way to present information, other than the websites discussed is by other electronic means, e.g. a PDF file, or paper-based alternatives. If used correctly files in PDF format are very versatile in terms of accessibility, whereas paper-based literature can be modified in terms of text size, or by the use of Braille.

 

I wanted to see how much of the information given by PCC candidates was accessible. So, I sent an email to five of the candidates. Unfortunately I received just one reply with an offer to help provide literature other than that on the Internet. Even more troubling was a response that apologised that no alternative formats were available because of ‘unfortunate limits on available resources’.

 

To select a suitable candidate the electorate must have access to accurate information. This is not just about choice, it is a fundamental right of all citizens to engage in political process, which includes the information candidates use to set out the goals for their term in office.

 

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD), ratified by the UK government in 2009, is an international standard for human rights. The convention states that information should be available in accessible or alternative formats.

 

This is cited as:

 

  • A dedicated substantive provision (Article 9).
  • Explicitly mentioned in references to other substantive provisions (eg. Articles 12, 13, 19, 20 and 21), as well as two of the ‘implementation’ provisions (Articles 31 and 32).
  • Included as one of the eight General Principles in the Convention (Article 3f).
  • Included in the preamble (paragraph V).

 

In addition the Equality Acts (2010) anticipatory ethos, means that services must act pre-emptively to account for the additional needs of disabled people.

 

I do appreciate that for someone without the know-how or resources to achieve this, it can seem a daunting prospect. However people have a right to engage with, and be involved in, their communities and not sidelined resources permitting.

 

Human rights are not a luxury and should not be considered a choice.

 

 

Chris is a PhD candidate at the University of Surrey and Policy Officer at a national charity. Chris’s research explores the experiences of disabled employees and how organizational context can impact upon their wellbeing.

 

 

 
Comments
  • http://dwgism.livejournal.com/ DGillon

    Sadly I didn’t even find out the candidate info was on the Home Office website until this morning, 12 hours after polls closed. Beyond breaching the UNCRPD and the anticipatory ethos of the Equality Act, the fact that 3.91 million disabled people have never been online at all (quoting easily accessible ONS figures) suggests a pretty major breach of the Home Office’s Single Equality Duty under the Equality Act and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it falls foul of electoral law as well.

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  • http://twitter.com/KironReid Kiron Reid

    I was acutely aware of this problem but as an Independent candidate with a very small team of volunteers helping in their spare time I couldn’t do anything to improve my nearly free website. Yes a WordPress site has built in features but I’d never used them before & also needed help to learn to use Twitter and other social media as these were the only free ways to engage the electorate. [Long post as I now know what the difficulties are for an independent without a lot of money available but that is the key point].

    As it is most of the 1 million voters of Merseyside (able or with a disability) received no information from anyone. If I’d had a team of volunteers this was one of about 20 things down to research – to make my website more accessible for people with disabilities; so was summarising the scores of briefings I was sent by groups lobbying that there was no time to read, researching legal issues about the election process, identifying media contacts for an entire county (most of whom ignored me as an Independent until just before the election or largely ignored the election), researching the track record of other candidates and keeping up to date on what the Police Authority and Police were doing. I had a good general grasp on the latter two and there were briefings on election law and on police authorities but even as a legal expert I couldn’t go through the volume while working full time. Party candidates could all rely on helpers, even if only a small number, to do many of these jobs and they had experts and databases and email lists and all the infrastructure to help. I did have a quick look to see if there was instant advice from any charity but didn’t know where to look. (I wish I’d seen this post earlier, Chris, as it would have given me some tips).

    “Even more troubling was a response that apologised that no alternative formats were available because of ‘unfortunate limits on available resources’. ” I assume you mean troubling that resources would be a limit because it is not the fault of the candidate. Having said that the response you mention might indicate an attitude that did not take account of need, or demonstrate a lack of understanding. I did get some printed materials, in small and large sizes (100 posters and leaflets), and used .pdf files as indicated in your article partly as a helper suggested them for the reasons you outline. My 6,000 flyers (for 1 million voters) were only in small size and I didn’t have time to upload .pfs of all the materials to the website as there were 1200+ PCC election related emails (estimate) over the campaign and 500 in the last week when a few people finally got interested. Plus a dozen paper briefings and lobbying mailshots and a handful of actual letters from ordinary voters. If I’d been party candidate I would have given these to someone to look at or had standard replies to use as templates. If I’d been able to see at a glance which emails were national lobbying I’d have put them in a to do later file, and which PR companies touting for my business if elected and companies touting for police business I could have ignored without reading. I sent approximately 600 individual emails. So there were a lot of competing demands on time and it meant some important things slipped from being prioritised.

    “people have a right to engage with, and be involved in, their communities and not sidelined resources permitting.” I agree and the public authorities should have offered to help with this in the interests of fair play. The information issued by Liverpool for the instructions on voting was criticised by a Professor of legal theory and a lawyer for not being clear (it was limited and misleading, despite Liverpool having run a vote like this before for Mayor), and the poll card had only in 12pt type an invisible line at the very bottom (of the Poll Card) about the choosemypcc site which only went live for information about candidates long after the poll cards went out, and the advertising on radio and television seemed to have stopped. So no chance for people who had not already engaged to find out about the election if they did not use the internet to research the candidates or happen to see the one profile in a local paper. My wife asked why they didn’t at least pin the leaflets up on the wall of each polling station, and have them in the libraries. Voters asked polling station staff for information on the day and were of course told (legally correctly) that they could not help them. So they went away without voting. Many voters claimed to me poll cards did not arrive (that may have been an error on their part), and I did not receive postal information from the Home Office and our flats, and I think area, did not receive the helpful booklet the Electoral Commission distributed.

    Three of the seven audience debates on Merseyside only invited the main party candidates and only two were in effect open to the general public. That was not the fault of the parties or candidates (as far as I know) but voters in three of the five districts had no debates at all. The public authorities or education bodies could all have done something about that but did not. They all left it up to someone else. Finally a colleague asked if he could bring a party of students to the count from an adult education course and the Returning Officer gave the impression this was far too difficult. So people who wanted to attend to learn about the democratic process were not encouraged but the place was far more than half empty. The officials should start from the basis that they are there to help everyone. That should surely lead also to them being more likely to comply with their legal obligations under the Equality Act as well by them anticipating being helpful to everyone.

    Thank you, Chris and ERS, for highlighting this important issue. This should be part of any review into the process of the election and how it could be done better. Specifically if it is legal rules about the conduct of elections that are hindering the process being improved by being substantially modernised then the legal rules must be rewritten. That must be in addition to a review of how the post can actually be improved to enable any Commissioner to do the job the Government has claimed they will be able to do.

    Kiron Reid (Independent candidate for Merseyside PCC).

    17 November 2012.

    • Chris Rossiter

      Kiron –

      Thank you for taking the time to respond and apologies for my late reply.

      As you rightly point out many people do not have the knowledge or understanding of what being accessible is all about or the impact inaccessibility can have on disabled people. Accessibility, particularly in relation to websites, can be rather complex and many website ‘builders’ do not offer accessibility features.

      I do not think you are at fault here. This should not be a responsibility of individuals, as it has been. Clearly leaving this up to candidates is not appropriate because they either lack the knowledge, resources or motivation to see this through.

      In line with the Social Model of disability, it is not an individual’s impairment that restricts their participation in society. Rather structural, procedural and attitudinal barriers prevent their full and active participation. A lac of accessible information in this context is demonstrable evidence of this.

      I do not know what, if any, guidance is provided to parliamentary candidates on this issue. Although political parties naturally have much greater resources to make this possible.

      One would like to think the Electoral Commission would offer guidance in this regard, clearly this has not been the case. There is a huge amount of freely available information on accessibility, not just on the internet but via the many Disabled Peoples’ Organisations.

      The point made by DGillion about the number of disabled people who access the internet means the marginalization faced by this group is greatly enhanced in this situation. Yet the increases to disability hate crime highlight the needs of the largest social minority in relation to crime and policing.

      Given the claims about popular mandates and the ‘authority’ of the new commissioners to act on behalf of the committees they represent, it appears that disabled people are once again assigned to obscurity.

      I have raised a complaint with the Electoral Commission and hope to be able to report on the outcome in the near future.

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