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The campaign to stamp out disenfranchisement of Sheffield’s disabled voters

It’s taken three years, a Facebook post and a series of complaints – but all except one of Sheffield’s polling stations are finally wheelchair accessible.

Three years ago, Anne Everson, an advocate and former social worker, complained to Sheffield City Council about a polling station she knew was not wheelchair accessible.

She heard reports that a woman who went to vote at the Springfield Tavern in the Walkley ward had to wait outside for somebody to notice that she couldn’t get in, then she had to vote outside, in public.

Everson contacted John Mothersole, then Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council, to complain but it was not resolved as voting outside was considered to be a sufficient “reasonable adjustment” - something an organisation can be expected to provide to accommodate a disabled person’s needs.

More recently, Everson found out that Hallamshire Tiles, another polling station, was inaccessible. She was also made aware by her husband, who was standing for the council in the area, that Walkley Library – another polling station – had a sign for an accessible entrance that turned out to be inaccessible.

This year, when she got her polling card, Everson looked at the Council’s website and discovered that Walkley Library and Hallamshire Tiles were still on the list of polling stations. Another formal complaint followed but, since this had been unsuccessful the previous time, she also took to Facebook.

Walkley Library
Gareth Simpson

Posting on the Wonderful Walkley page, knowing the local election candidates checked the page regularly, she called for them, as well as other members of the public, to insist that Electoral Services only use accessible polling stations.

Everson suggested alternative locations but she was shot down each time. Frustrated, she refused to take no for an answer. She identified that the Ebenezer Methodist Church was accessible and in the correct ward boundary and contacted the elections office to suggest it as an alternative.

Everything happened very quickly from that point onwards. The following day, she received a call saying that the Walkley Library polling station was being moved to Ebenezer Methodist Church, followed by a message saying that the Hallamshire Tiles polling station was being moved to Crookesmoor Lifelong Learning Centre.

The problem, unfortunately, has not been resolved for disabled Sheffielders whose polling station is at Hallamshire Bowling Club, where residents will either have to have voted by post or hope that an official within the polling station can assist them to vote.

Val Bowen, Information Officer at Disability Sheffield, told Now Then, “While welcoming the replacement of two inaccessible venues following public pressure, we would like assurance that the Council will undertake a review of all polling stations to comply with the recommendations of the Electoral Commission’s report Elections for Everyone.”

This report shows that, even where polling stations are wheelchair accessible, there are further accommodations that should be provided to make elections accessible to every disabled person.

So why is accessible voting so important?

This year, Sheffield residents will not only be voting for local councillors. There is also going to be a vote for South Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner and a vital referendum on how the council is run. The right to have our say is integral to a democratic society and excluding disabled people from the voting process disenfranchises an already marginalised community.

“I’m passionate about being a woman and everybody having the right to vote," Everson said. "Because people died to get that right, and that includes for people with disabilities.”

Some people would say that disabled people can apply for a postal vote instead of going to their polling station in person, but this leaves them with fewer options than their non-disabled counterparts, as well as not being a solution anyway; not all postboxes are accessible, nor can everybody mark their ballot paper without assistance. (Polling stations have large-print sample ballot papers and tactile devices with braille and raised numbers for blind and partially sighted voters.)

Everson also likes the process of voting in person and believes that everybody should have that right.

“I’ve felt really passionate about the fact that that people should be able to go to the polling station, because that's what I like to do. I put my cross on that paper and stick it in the ballot box, and for me that is something really, really essential.

“Plus, sticking it in the post, I've no idea whether it will get there or not.”

Brian Holmshaw, Green Party candidate for Broomhill and Sharrow Vale ward, where Hallamshire Tiles is located, told Now Then:

“I spoke to the owner at the Tile Shop a couple of weeks ago after being alerted to the difficulty of access by a local resident. I am glad it’s been sorted. Well done to the local people who’ve put pressure on and got that change made, so that disabled and elderly voters have not been disenfranchised.

“However this is only one of a one of a number of ways in which our city is not practicing the equality it should be. Planning and enforcement needs to improve. Poorly-sited street furniture is a hazard. Badly-maintained infrastructure – badly laid pavements, uneven tram track crossings, broken down road edges and steep kerbs – are all a problem if you are less mobile.

“The situation at polling stations has been made worse with cuts to the funding of community centres, and the Council selling off buildings it owns in the city. So now there are far fewer accessible buildings that a local community can call their own, and which can double up as polling stations at this time of year."

Anne Everson is relieved that her hard work, and that of those who campaigned alongside her, has paid off. So what lesson has she learned from the experience?

“It's taught me that you have to be persistent and not accept no for an answer. Because I've been fobbed off for at least three years and been told, 'There's nothing we can do about it.' And actually, there was.”

Now Then approached the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative Party candidates in the ward for comment but they did not respond. We were not able to contact the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidate.

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