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Thursday, 7 June, 2001, 10:05 GMT 11:05 UK

Polling stations face disabled scrutiny

The UK's polling stations are coming under scrutiny from groups representing disabled people.

Leading up to the 7 June poll, the charities Scope, Capability Scotland and the Disability Rights Commission have campaigned to make it easier for disabled people to cast their votes.

In May 1997 nine out of 10 stations presented two or more problems for disabled people trying to reach the ballot box.

" When they are denied equal access to polling stations, disabled people are being squeezed from democracy "
Liz Daone, Scope

The campaign, Polls Apart 3, is inviting all UK voters to do a survey on the day before voting and then post their findings via its new interactive website.

Volunteers will also survey polling stations throughout the country and, with more than 8.6 million disabled people entitled to vote, the groups will gauge how easy or difficult it is for them.

Access to some polling booths has represented a problem for people with disabilities in the past.

However, Scope said changes had been enforced since 1997 to improve access and reduce areas of difficulty.

" Would anyone be motivated to vote if they knew that they would have to be carried into their local polling station? "
Michelle Hegarty, Capability Scotland

Poor access to polling stations has, in the past, been compounded by especially high or narrow booths, which have made it impossible to cast a vote in private.

The organisations will collate the results before submitting a report with recommendations.

Two such reports have been submitted before; one after the 1997 general election and one following the 1997 referendum.

Liz Daone, Scope's campaigns manager, said: "This is the first time Scope is using the internet in a campaign project.

"Voting is a basic right. There are about 13,000 disabled people in each constituency.

"When they are denied equal access to polling stations, disabled people are being squeezed from democracy."

She added that postal votes were "not an acceptable alternative" to voting at their local polling station, just as "hiring a video is not a substitute for a trip to the cinema".

And CS director of communications, Michelle Hegarty, said officials must wake up to the reality of the problems people with disabilities have faced with when casting their vote.

"Would anyone be motivated to vote if they knew that they would have to be carried into their local polling station in front of friends and family, or have to go in a separate entrance through the rubbish bins or have the indignity of having to vote in the street where everyone can see them?"

"Yet this is the reality for thousands of Scotland's voters who have a disability."

This is something that CS is anxious to remedy before the next Scottish parliamentary elections in 2003.

Through campaigns such as '1 in 4 Poll', it hopes that disabled issues are placed under the spotlight, and in its own words prove that disabled people "live in the same world as everyone else".

Alongside six of Scotland's largest disability organisations, CS launched a general election disability manifesto, which highlighted key recommendations across a range of reserved powers including benefits, employment and equality legislation.

A spokeswoman for the Home Office said a range of measures had been introduced to assist disabled people.

These included a device to help blind and partially sighted people use the ballot papers and the introduction of large print material at polling booths.

Moves have also been taken to improve access for wheelchair users at polling stations.

On 8 June, CS will begin the process of assessing access to polling stations, disabled parking facilities and improvements that could be made for the Scottish elections in two years time.

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