BARRED FROM THE BALLOT

BY JACKIE SHARLAND

As a lively, middle aged woman who suddenly finds herself engaging with the world from a wheelchair I have faced many challenges accessing bars, shops and restaurants since moving to Broadstairs eighteen months ago.

However I had not expected to encounter such difficulties when going to exercise my democratic right to vote in the General Election in May 2015!

Surely the voting station would be accessible to all and I would not be disenfranchised due to my inability to walk.

So when I arrived and took my place in the queue I was surprised that the entrance to Pierremont Hall was up several stone steps. Not slow at coming forward I asked whether there was disabled access.

Consternation reigned – there was a lack of clarity amongst the throng of party representatives and electoral staff about where, or even whether, there was a portable ramp.

Meanwhile the returning officer had come out to help. Initially he addressed my husband, and I realised I was invisible again. I explained I was experiencing the accessibility issue. He was clearly embarrassed and extremely apologetic.

He offered to take my vote in for me – I thanked him but explained that I wanted to cast my vote myself in the same way everyone else was doing and that the key issue was access to the building for me (and my wheelchair legs!)

He offered to help with the ramps and agreed that this was not the best venue to accommodate all needs and would make this clear in his official report.

After the ramps were located and a rather unnerving wobbly journey I was in the building and in the queue to get my ballot paper. Low level polling booths so that was great. BUT as I went to put my paper in the ballot box I couldn’t reach the slot.

The returning officer squashed it down so I could. Hoorah! Now all I needed to do was navigate the rather wobbly ramp to get out.

The RO was apologetic, helpful and embarrassed. He assured me that he would be raising all the issues we had discussed and would be recommending another venue for the future.

Fast forward to May 2016 and the local elections.

Pierremont Hall again! No one on the doors but the ramps propped up against the railings.

Luckily my husband was with me to set the ramps up – or I may have been forlornly shouting for someone to come and do so. Same issue with height of the ballot box and again had to be helped to cast my vote by the returning officer.

A different, again very helpful and embarrassed returning officer, helped set up ramps for my exit and was horrified at the unstable and bumpy ride I had down the ramp.

He said he would outline issues and emphasise the fact that Pierremont Hall is not fit for purpose as an equal access venue.

I wonder how many elections will go by and reports have to be written before there is any change. It seems there is another battle to be won before everyone has access to universal suffrage.

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