Disabled people are not at the table. We are not part of policy-making. We seem an afterthought. Disability isn’t a wheelchair - disability is a huge spectrum of people living with a range of conditions who need to be included in all of society - not just accommodated”.

Disabled woman, carer, and a representative of a DPO,40-44.

Disability Action is the largest pan-disability organisation in the UK and Ireland.  This response was compiled by d/Deaf disabled people.

  • Disability Action welcomes the invitation to comment on Electoral Office’s Disability Action Plan for the period 2022-2027.
  • Disability Action is concerned regarding the lack of targets and measures to protect the rights of deaf and disabled people to vote and to promote our participation in the electoral process.

Research conducted by Disability Action on behalf of the Equality Commission demonstrates that 6 out of 10 deaf and disabled people have problems voting in elections and taking part in politics.  d/Deaf and disabled people are underrepresented in political and public life in Northern Ireland[1].  The UK Electoral Office has identified barriers to elected office as including attitudinal perceptions; caring responsibilities; financial costs; institutional norms; political culture; time constraints; lack of support networks; and levels of political experience[2]. The Equality Commission has raised concerns regarding the barriers that d/Deaf and disabled people face with respect to registration to vote and exercising voting rights[3].  Participants in the research to inform Disability Action’s report on “Progress Towards the Implementation of the UNCRPD in Northern Ireland”[4] referred to physical barriers in exercising their vote, challenges in accessing postal votes due to the wiping of the register, and the lack of adjustments for d/Deaf and disabled people in exercising their vote:

“From the point of view of a visually impaired voter, templates provided for polls are not individually designed and therefore only half useful. That indicates merely where to X the box and not for whom you are selecting.”

Disabled man aged 50-54[5].

Political Parties in the UK have broadly acknowledged these barriers and, to various degrees, sought to put in place strategies for helping address the under-representation of particular social groups, although their efforts have predominantly targeted women and ethnic minorities[6].   Participants in the qualitative research informing this report have told us of their aspirations to participate in politics and their doubts about being taken seriously:

“I would love to be involved in politics but don't know how to get involved. I don't feel I would be accepted or taken seriously enough - sometimes it feels like it is a talking shop - nothing changes. It feels like it is just a tick box exercise.”

Disabled Carer with a long-term health condition

Although funds had been made available to compensate d/Deaf and disabled candidates in Great Britain for disability-related costs during political campaigns through the Access to Elected Office Fund[7], the fund was closed in 2018[8]. The closure had an adverse impact on d/Deaf and disabled people running for elected office. For example, in one instance a blind candidate had to depend on family and friends for support in relation to door-to-door canvassing during a national election because there was no funding available for a personal assistant[9].  Following a campaign by a cross-party political organisation, the Fund was subsequently reopened, for local government candidates only, in England at the end of 2018, in advance of the 2019 election (for a duration of 12 months)[10].  No such fund was available to any perspective d/Deaf and disabled candidates running for public office in Northern Ireland and there are no plans to introduce such a fund. 

Deaf and disabled people have told Disability Action that whilst they wished to participate in decision-making, they were turned off by voting:

“We lack representatives from our community in the government and no one who is in government - mostly non-disabled - cares for our issues or lives as people. I don’t vote as I have yet to be given a reason to do so, no one in government represents me or my issues, and many venues are also inaccessible when voting as I have heard from fellow disabled friends”

Disabled man care with a health,16-24.

The participation of d/Deaf and disabled people in public life is a strategic commitment of the NI Executive but not it is not clear how this is to be achieved in practice[11].  Measures to encourage the participation of d/Deaf and disabled people in public life have been ineffective in addressing underrepresentation[12]

The Draft Disability Action Plan states that Electoral Office will continue to develop links with disabled people and their representative groups.  There is however no detail provided regarding the ways in which the electoral office proposes to engage with deaf and disabled people.  Disability Action would be keen to engage with the Electoral Office to advance this engagement.

Disability Action welcomes Electoral Office’s commitment to making changes to polling stations and counting centres to make developments to d/Deaf and disabled people but notes that Disability Action Plan does not provide any indications of what will be changed and when these changes will be made. Disability Action suggests that Electoral Office should use co-design and co-production principles when making any changes. All changes should be made by in consultation with deaf and disabled people.

Electoral Office’s Disability Action Plan mentions integrating disability training for polling station staff. Disability Action strongly believes that Disability Equality Training should be delivered to all electoral office employees. This training should be developed and delivered by deaf and disabled people.

Disability Action welcomes Electoral Office’s commitment to invite for an interview for permanent vacancies all d/Deaf disabled people who meet essential criteria. Disability Action delivers the Workable and JobMatch programme. The purpose of these programme is to assist d/Deaf disabled people to access and remain in employment by helping to arrange reasonable adjustments, providing disability awareness training, and providing assistance to employers who employ d/Deaf disabled people. Disability Action would encourage Electoral Office to engage with Disability Action regarding the recruitment and retention of deaf and disabled employees. Support.

The Disability Strategy Expert Advisory Panel has proposed the following recommendations, which Disability Action support:

  • Seriously review and develop an action plan to challenge the existing social security legislation which limits the genuine opportunity for d/ Deaf and disabled people to participate in the public appointments process, including the opportunity to receive remuneration as appropriate on an equal basis with others not in receipt of welfare benefit;
  • Review the essential job criteria for public appointments, removing additional burdensome qualifying criteria not essential to the successful appointments of d/Deaf and disabled people. - for example, the value of lived experience and service to the community should be taken into account[13].

In addition, Disability Action recommend:

  • Training activities should be delivered to organisations of persons with disabilities to strengthen their capacity to participate in all phases of policymaking and in political and public life;
  • Financial support should be allocated to DPOs to strengthen their capacity to participate in public decision-making processes;
  • Consultation processes should be undertaken to ensure active involvement of d/Deaf and disabled people, including through their organisations, in the design, implementation and monitoring of laws, regulations, policies and programmes, related to the right to vote, be elected, hold office, and perform public functions[14].
  • Electoral Office should engage schools to ensure that disabled children have access to information about the electoral process and ensure that materials are delivered in accessible formats including (Braille, BSL and ISL vlogs, easy read, etc) to encourage young d/Deaf disabled people to take part in public life by voting.
  • Regular, sensitive, and confidential collection of disability data from elected Members
  • Action to ensure that disabled elected members and candidates can fully participate in elections and political activity.
  • Require political parties to publish data regarding the proportion of disabled candidates and disabled elected representatives.
  • Introduce the Access to Elected Office Fund in NI.
  • Introduce evidence-based, targeted campaigns to tackle barriers and build confidence amongst disabled people interested in standing for elected office which is co-designed and co-delivered with disabled people.
  • All elected bodies, at the national, regional, and local level should be leaders in making the practical changes needed to enable disabled people to fully participate in political life, such as making available and advertising sign language interpretation, induction loop systems and accessible meeting rooms for local council meetings.
  • Introduce online voting to remove barriers to voting experienced by deaf and disabled people.

For further information contact Nuala Toman, Head of Policy at [email protected] or Greta Gurklyte, Public Engagement Officer at [email protected] 


[1] Department for Communities (2020): Disability Strategy Expert Advisory Panel: Report and Recommendations, p.109 (accessed 10 October 2021).

[2] UK Government Equalities Office (2021): Barriers to elected office for disabled people (accessed 5 November 2021).

[3] Equality Commission of Northern Ireland (2019): Equality in Participation in Public Life, paragraphs 7.1-7.7, pp.26-27

[4] Report “Progress Towards the Implementation of the UNCRPD in Northern Ireland”

[5] Report “Progress Towards the Implementation of the UNCRPD in Northern Ireland”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Waltz, M. and Schippers, A. (2021): Politically disabled: barriers and facilitating factors affecting people with disabilities in political life within the European Union, Disability & Society, 36:4, pp. 517-540.

[8] Disability Rights News Service (2020): Government blames coronavirus crisis for closure of elected office fund (accessed 5 November 2020).

[9] Waltz, M. and Schippers, A. (2021): Politically disabled: barriers and facilitating factors affecting people with disabilities in political life within the European Union, Disability & Society, 36:4, pp 517-540.

[10]  Ibid.

[11] The Executive Office (2011): Public Bodies and Public Appointments Annual Report 2009/2010, p.30 (accessed 5 November 2021).

[12] Ibid, paragraph 5.11, p.13.

[13] Department for Communities (2020): Disability Strategy Expert Advisory Panel: Report and Recommendations, pp.104-105 (accessed 10 October 2021).

[14] United Nation Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2020): Article 29: List of illustrative indicators on participation in political and public life (accessed 5 November 2021).