Disability and Voting Rights

By Nathan Despott and Asher Hirsch

By Nathan Despott and Asher Hirsch

You could be forgiven for thinking that Australia’s progressive legislation around inclusion has created an equitable Eden of voting rights. We use postal votes and multilingual ballot papers and enforce compulsory voting laws for anyone over the age of 18. We don’t use polling computers that switch our votes. Gerrymandering is passé. Times have changed. Polling places have ramps.

The reality is that voting rights and inclusion do not come together so smoothly in Australia.

Serena Ferraro is a Support Coordinator at Inclusion Melbourne, a local disability support provider.  She has coordinated the daily activities of people with an intellectual disability for almost 20 years.

“Everyone has the right to be on the roll,” says Ferraro, “but you still need to argue against paying a fine when the people responsible for getting the person to the polling station don’t turn up to provide transport on the day. Sometimes putting a person on the roll sets them up for years of fines if they slip through the cracks.”

These words from the coalface indicate that, while voting rights for people with a disability is a complex issue, even some of the mundane practicalities – such as organising a five-minute drive to a polling station no more than once a year – are logistical impossibilities. “One year I even called the local member to ask if he could send someone to help the person vote. No one came.” Ferraro pauses. “The irony was that the person would have voted for that member.”

Ferraro also notes that planning for election day best occurs in the context of “circles of support” – networks of family members and friends who assist and advocate for a person with a disability when creating lifestyle plans and making important decisions. Isolated members of the community, such as residents of Supported Residential Services, do not always have this support. “People in an SRS often don’t have a hope of getting [to the polls].”

Enrolment and transport are just two of several practical considerations in the voting process for people with an intellectual disability. Federal and State electoral commissions’ attention to improving these factors is commendable, as is their emphasis on accessibility. Wheelchair friendly polling stations, telephone services for the blind and postal voting services are recent improvements.

However none of these considerations address the issues that sit in the grey area between the logistics of getting to polling places and the broader discussion of disability, inclusion and democracy. These grey area issues – advocacy, education and helping people become politically engaged – require us to look at human rights, leading research from around the world, and the dark past of disability rights for answers.

Disability and the right to vote

The right to vote is one of the most fundamental human rights, especially in a thriving democracy such as Australia. The right to vote is set out in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The requirement to be eligible to vote, outlined in the Commonwealth Electoral Act, is that the person has a sound mind, that is, that they are capable of understanding the nature and significance of voting. Such criteria need not rule out those who have an intellectual disability (or learning disability) or anyone else who needs support in understanding the voting process.

Cognitive ability does not negate a person’s capacity to have a well-defined value system in the same way that a powerful intellect does not ensure a person will have superior ethical or moral opinions.

Research in the UK by Marcus Redley demonstrates just how slippery some interpretations of the right to vote can be. Prior to the 2005 UK General Election, people with a disability received voting instructions in simplified English in the mail. Several direct support workers, apparently speaking on behalf of their clients, complained to support organisations that their clients’ rights were being violated through being forced to do something that was, essentially, beyond them. The support workers’ impulses were sincere, but misguided.

According to recent research by Martin Agran and Carolyn Hughes, this contorted approach to human rights has undergone legislative justification in 44 American states in which provisions that prevent access to voting for people with an intellectual disability exist. Agran and Hughes found that this legislation is enabled by a prevalent culture of ambivalence about voting rights among disability support workers.

Limiting the ability of some people to make informed decisions based on uncompromising views of inhibited cognitive ability tells us a lot about the way a society determines whether someone is able or informed. This is because cognitive ability does not negate a person’s capacity to have a well-defined value system in the same way that a powerful intellect does not ensure a person will have superior ethical or moral opinions.

There are more than four million Australians with a disability whose lives are largely dependent on government services. To quote political philosopher Linda Barclay, “those individuals whose interests are affected by the polity’s decisions should have the right to be included in the decision-making of that polity, a principle defended by some of the most influential democratic theorists.”

And for those with drastically reduced verbal communication skills who are now receiving university degrees with the help of head pointers, coded eye movements and expert support workers, the debate about soundness of mind seems, perhaps, a little stale.

Breaking down the barriers to equality

The reality is that people with a profound disability are part of a broader body of disenfranchised voters who become political footballs, often referenced in media yet lacking access to democratic participation, despite supposedly having the right to vote. The stories of Australians with a disability reveal barriers to both access (equity) and opportunity (equality) as there is a prevailing de facto understanding that voting is off limits for certain people.

Few people with a disability have fail-safe supported pathways that will guide them through the enrolment, preference determination, transport and voting processes, and then ensure that the pathway will be repeated at successive elections. This lack of support translates into low voter turnout.

However, access and equity are about a lot more than logistics. They are also about ensuring systems are in place to allow isolated people to make political decisions and to be involved in the types of conversations millions of Australians have over their lattes every day. Thousands of Australians are excluded from this simply because of the societal expectation that people with a disability don’t understand the democratic process.

Redley’s research led to similar conclusions about the double standard that exists in the sidelining of people with a disability from participating in elections. He concluded, “to deny an adult the right to vote because of a perceived deficiency in their ability to assess the qualities of individual candidates would be discriminatory [as] no such requirement is placed upon members of the general population.”

He proposed that additional supports be put in place, such as family members or carers, to ensure such voters understood their rights and responsibilities in the democratic process. This could be as simple as having a discussion.

Swedish researcher Anette Kjellberg suggests a more progressive conversation about voting, disability and citizenship. Embracing a holistic perspective, Kjellberg’s conclusions acknowledge that people with a disability, like all members of the community, need a strong social network to empower them to actively participate in citizenship. Her work shows that having a social network creates opportunities to meet people and discuss social questions, which in turn leads to the development of the citizens’ political knowledge.

Encouraging existing social structures to nurture a normalised awareness of political issues and modelling participatory democracy represent an organic (and very clever) approach to developing a person’s initiative to navigate the pathway to a completed ballot paper.

The social model of disability

The key to understanding the lingering presence of discriminatory views is that a shift in the understanding of disability has occurred only recently. A British disability advocacy group, the UPIAS, expressed a view about disability that, as recently as 1975, was seen as groundbreaking. “In our view, it is society which disables … people [with a disability]. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society.”

The British social model of disability is a person-centred, possibility-orientated view of disability that stands in stark contrast to the traditional medical model, which viewed disability as a set of limitations requiring labelling, treatment and isolation (often focused on alleviating a family’s sense of shame at having a child who was different). The old model’s pessimism and fatalism meant that the vast stores of gifts and talents present within people with a disability too often remained unrecognised and untapped.

In Australia, the social model is now underscored by legislation, such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme Act 2013 which promotes “the provision of high quality and innovative supports that enable people with a disability to maximise independent lifestyles and full inclusion in the mainstream community”.  The Disability Act 2006 includes the right of people with a disability to “realise their individual capacity for … social … and intellectual development”. Surely these incorporate the valued role of “voter” and increased participation in democracy? If so, then support is required to enable people to fulfil this civil responsibility.

Australia’s compulsory voting, which creates an ethos of civil obligation, and DisabilityCare together provide an opportunity for Australian policy makers to remove the barriers to democratic participation.

Anti-discrimination legislation, community education, person-centred models of support and persistent advocacy have led to a society in which many people with an intellectual disability who were once virtually incarcerated in institutions are now able to experience the transformative power of inclusion.

The incoming DisabilityCare system will allow better planning and greater conceptual emphasis on choice-making. This free-market system of disability support provision and increased funding will see more power ultimately resting with a person’s immediate family and advocates than ever before. Applying leading research findings and world’s best practice to models of support that put the person first and prioritise the latest advancements in assisted choice-making could rejuvenate the disability support sector and radically transform the lives of Australians with a disability.

However, full democratic participation and social inclusion has only recently found its way into the conversation. Australia’s compulsory voting, which creates an ethos of civil obligation, and DisabilityCare together provide an opportunity for Australian policy makers to remove the barriers to democratic participation.

If DisabilityCare embraces a strategy that incorporates the latest pragmatic and progressive approaches, such as those being adopted in Britain and Sweden, we could see people with a disability arriving at polling stations more informed and in larger numbers. We must therefore ensure that the new system includes democratic participation – specifically, voting – as a measurable outcome. Anything less would be a squandered opportunity.


Nathan Despott is the publications officer at Inclusion Melbourne, a disability support service that has supported people with an intellectual disability for over 60 years. Nathan has produced or edited several guides to the concept of inclusion within the disability sphere. He edited and contributed to the recent RMIT/Inclusion Melbourne guide to choice-making within the new DisabilityCare environment.

Asher Hirsch has recently completed a Masters of Human Rights Law. He works at the Centre for Multicultural Youth (CMY) and has also worked in the disability sector for over 6 years. Any views and opinions reflected in this article are the author’s own and not necessarily that of any associated organisations including CMY.