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by Tom Freeman
16 April 2014
Independent mind - engaging people with learning disabilities in the referendum on independence

Independent mind - engaging people with learning disabilities in the referendum on independence

There are six adults with a learning disability for every 1,000 adults in Scotland. Some may not have a specific disability but they do have difficulty with communication, literacy and social interactions.

Jan Murdoch, head of corporate affairs at the Scottish Consortium for Learning Disability (SCLD), says: “We want people with learning disabilities and their families to have a say, they should have a say in Scotland’s future, the same as everyone else. It’s about encouraging people with learning disabilities to participate in society and take their place as citizens, active citizens.”

When the 1979 referendum on home rule took place, attitudes towards learning disability were shifting. The seventies were a time when they would have been referred to as ‘feeble minded’ or ‘defective’ and may have been incarcerated for much of their lives, unable to vote. In 2014, however, Scottish charities and organisations are ensuring this often marginalised group in society is playing an active role in the referendum on Scottish independence.


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Braille, audio CD and British Sign Language summaries of the White Paper were available when it was launched in November, but an ‘easy read’ version has yet to appear.
‘Easy read’ turns jargon into cut-down, plain English with helpful illustrations. It’s designed for people with learning difficulties. An easy read version of the White Paper should be made available by Learning Disability Week, 19-25 May.

SCLD is supervising the translation. Jan Murdoch says not having a copy with six months to go is frustrating. “It’s not like they didn’t know it was coming out, but producing an easy read is quite a challenge because it almost presupposes you know what the status of a White Paper is, and you don’t necessarily know, and it could be quite easy to turn a White Paper into a manifesto,” she says.

Any organisation working with people with learning disabilities must be careful not to influence opinions, according to Murdoch, meaning they have more responsibility than most organisations to stay neutral. “Accessible information does force you into that position of ensuring you’ve got the key messages but you’re describing them in a way people can make sense of, but you’re not describing them in such a way that that person thinks it’s a fact, when it’s not a fact,” she says.

The White Paper has been criticised for resembling a manifesto, and translation becomes even harder when dealing with abstract concepts, which are “almost the worst enemy of accessible information,” according to Murdoch.

SCLD are looking to bring together work by charities ENABLE and Down’s Syndrome Scotland to engage people with learning disabilities in the referendum debate, and are conducting a survey on their own website. “For us it’s been about collecting evidence. We have hunches about what issues people will be interested in, we have hunches about how easy or difficult it’s been for people to vote and exercise their civic duty in the past, and we thought maybe we should collect some evidence around that,” says Murdoch.

Learning Disability Alliance Scotland (LDAS), coordinated by Ian Hood, has run 24 workshops on the referendum across Scotland for people with learning disabilities. “I’m less concerned about the White Paper, because I actually think it’s quite a hard document to work your way through, and I’m not sure how anyone can make 680 pages ‘easy to read’,” he says.

The workshops take the form of an interactive discussion where participants can vote electronically on each section, from national identity to some of the bigger issues on jobs and pensions. It is less about education and more about empowerment for Hood, who points to the citizenship tests in southern states of America in the 1960s for black people to prove they had adequate knowledge to vote. “Often people with learning disabilities have a barrier put against them that says ‘you don’t really understand, and therefore you can’t vote’. But lots of people vote because ‘my mum voted Labour’, or because you like the look of somebody. The reality is people do have the right to vote, and make that decision. Therefore what you need to do is help people work through that,” he says.

The workshops use humour and variety. Participants choose between pictures of the Prime Minster and First Minister, or neither, and are asked to respond to national songs. “We had one on Wednesday, the biggest meeting we have had, and a small group of people got up at the back of the room when God Save the Queen was playing and saluted proudly. It was a really good session, it was really fun. When we had Flower of Scotland playing, just about everyone in the room was waving as if they were at one of the football matches or a rugby match,” says Hood.

A cartoon pamphlet uses a ‘Jimmy Dimbleby’ character to take participants through a Question Time-style series of issues. This is followed by a DVD featuring interviews with Labour’s Jackie Baillie, Convener of the Cross-Party Group on Learning Disabilities and Joan McAlpine of the SNP, whose sister has Down’s syndrome.

There is also a section where people with learning disabilities give their own arguments for and against independence. The workshop ends with a vote. Engagement and demand is so high, LDAS have workshops booked until September, and is developing a do-it-yourself version, with coloured cards instead of electronic voting, so other organisations can run their own sessions.People who have difficulty with everyday activities like household tasks, socialising or managing money have their own priorities and takes on debate topics. 

Currency, for example, is an issue that came up in the LDAS workshops. “Some people with learning disabilities take a lot longer to get used to currency. To understand numbers and counting and recognising notes will be a much bigger issue if things change. People are quite loyal to their currency,” says Hood.Another is the word independence itself. The LDAS cartoon has a character offering the opinion: “No one else will tell us what to do if we are independent. We can choose our own road,” and this is something which people with learning disabilities can identify with, according to Hood. “It’s a hard question to answer because people sometimes answer it about themselves. Actually, I’d like to be independent, or I am independent, and that’s a good thing,” he says.

Part of what all organisations are doing is collating the ideas and priorities of people with learning disabilities to inform the debates. “We want people to understand that people with learning disabilities are part of this process. This is why we plan to publish the opinion poll, because everybody loves a good opinion poll. It’s a longitudinal one,” says Hood.

Murdoch estimates around two-thirds of people with learning disabilities have still to decide, but engagement is high. “People have not been listened to consistently for decades, for generations. We’ve got a real opportunity to give a distinctive voice within the referendum campaign,” she says.

The real opportunities for the community lie beyond September, however. For Murdoch, it’s about saying people aren’t wildly different, and not falling into the trap of making it about a special interest group. “This is the next turning point around achieving that long-term cultural behavioural attitudinal change towards people with learning disabilities. Actually, people are just trying to get on with their lives, and it’s not about being a superhero.

"We’ve got a real chance here, when we’re building a new Scotland, however, that might be defined to involve some of those people so we start the next chapter of Scotland’s story including those voices at that point. Personally, if you had a chance to genuinely build a more equal society then you need to involve people who are amongst the most marginalised in our society in order to achieve that more equal society,” says Murdoch.

Hood believes it is about the role of the third sector. “One of my worries would be that we might end up on the same old centre-left thing, where what we care about is the NHS, housing and welfare benefits. As opposed to, how do we help people to engage more in society? How do we make sure all the vulnerable are part of that and are not simply tucked away in their charities? That applies whether we get independence or additional devolved powers or even if we carry on as we are today. There’s a journey people are on, and I’m engaged with people all across Scotland who want to have their voices heard,” he says.

Issues of access to support services will need to be tackled, whichever way the vote goes, he says. The council tax freeze and other local authority budget decisions have left “thousands fewer” receiving services, according to Hood: “More people are paying, and they pay more, leaving many people in poverty.”

Reporting of bullying and harassment is on the up too, he says: “Lawrence from Aberdeen told me recently on a Friday afternoon he came home and kids called him names, chased him down the street, and he spent all weekend in the house scared to go out till the support staff turned up on Monday morning. He could’ve phoned but he didn’t want to impose. That kind of daily experience is what some people with learning disabilities have. They shrug it off sometimes, people get used to that kind of stuff, but it can be a really scary life sometimes.”

Murdoch agrees: “If we’re thinking about the big ideas, the big leap of faith, well, why not just ask for it? Why not ask for a Scottish society where disabled people genuinely contribute and participate in whatever way is meaningful to them? Why not ask for that?

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