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Scottish independence: The voting influence of disabled Scots

_77408058_023575492Disabled people in Scotland have said they feel they’ve been ignored in Scottish referendum campaigning by both sides. But how are disabled people voting, if at all, and why? BBC Scotland reporter Ian Hamilton looks at the situation with just over a week to go until the polls open.

The last UK census showed one in five of Scotland’s population claims to have a disability or long term health condition – that’s one million people. That’s a sizeable enough community to influence the outcome of the 18 September referendum on independence.

In August, Disability Agenda Scotland, a consortium of six of the nation’s largest disability charities, found that 73% of disabled people didn’t feel engaged with the forthcoming referendum. This figure was the result of a survey of just over 100 disabled people. Not a huge number and not representative of the whole population admittedly, but the only number we have in the absence of any bigger disability focused polls recently.

Billy Watson, chief executive of the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) says: “For people with a disability, the outcome of the referendum could have profound and far reaching implications, touching on the services that they depend on much more than most Scots. Services such as health, social services, welfare and transport, for instance.”

So how might disabled people vote? We can’t assume that all disabled people in Scotland are a homogenous like-minded group, because clearly they are not. But many will be on benefits and so potentially affected by the recent cuts from the coalition government.

A disabled person getting into their car transferring from their wheelchair The referendum decision could change services for disabled people, including transport

Why might disabled people vote “Yes”? Some of those I spoke to believe the welfare changes coming from Westminster were having a disproportionate impact on them, so by voting for independence they would help create a fairer society.

A couple of disabled voters went as far as to say: “What have we got to lose by voting ‘Yes’ when you think of the further proposed cuts?”

It’s clear that welfare changes are having as unsettling an impact on disabled people north of the border as they are elsewhere across the UK. The difference here in Scotland is that some disabled people feel they can actively avoid further changes by voting “Yes”.

The Scottish government says they will halt the rollout of Universal Credit, stop the change from Disability Living Allowance to the new Personal Independence Payments and end the controversial Work Capability Assessments. They believe Scotland can easily afford to look after the poorest in society through a better distribution of wealth, plus getting more people into work and increasing Scotland’s population.

And what about the disabled “No” vote? Those disabled people who would prefer Scotland to remain part of the Union say that the Scottish government’s plans for welfare after independence are unclear and unaffordable. Given that the UK is struggling to maintain a large welfare bill, they ask, how could Scotland, with a population of five million, maintain disability payments for the one million who need that extra financial assistance?

Speaking on this month’s disability talk show from BBC Ouch, Pipa Riggs, a blind voter who intends to vote “No” to independence, said: “It’s all well and good the SNP and the Scottish Parliament giving us everything at the moment to show us how nasty the UK government has been, but once, and if, they become our ‘supreme rulers’, the shoe will be on the other foot, they will be the one having to watch their spending and possibly tightening their belts.”

Somebody holding stirling pound notes and Scottish notes

Two of the Better Together parties, the Liberal Democrats and Labour, have pledged to pledged to reverse cuts in housing benefit which have reportedly hit disabled people the hardest. So if Scotland remains part of the UK, some of the controversial welfare changes may be abolished after the general election next May depending on the outcome.

Perhaps curiously, it’s only recently that we’ve seen the Yes Scotland and Better Together campaigns target the sizeable disabled population as voters to be won over.

Hundreds of disabled people attended an event in Glasgow last week to question representatives from both sides of the debate. But is this attempt to communicate with disabled people coming too late in the game?

Other minorities have been courted: there are images of people of all races and backgrounds in campaign material from both sides, but none to my knowledge reflecting Scotland’s large disability community. Also, perhaps further reflecting the lack of effort put into attracting the disability vote, some disabled people have complained about poor access at campaigning events and lack of accessible information.

Much of the campaigning has been done via social media, but there is also a grassroots movement taking us back to an old fashioned form of politics which has been filling town halls across Scotland, and disabled people feel as though they have missed out on much of this.

It’s estimated that one million people will vote either for the first time or for the first time in many years. They’ve been dubbed the “missing million”. The “Yes” campaign argues that these groups previously didn’t feel the political process was for them, but the independence debate has succeeded in engaging them.

We know that the poorer the area you live in, the more likely you are to have a disability or a long-term health condition and so it could be that a significant proportion of the “missing million” are disabled.

Polling expert Prof John Curtice has urged caution over concluding that poorer groups could have a significant effect as it emerged that there are now fewer voters on the electoral register than 2012 in deprived areas of Scotland.

I’ve heard disabled people say it’s up to both sides to work at including disabled people in any campaign strategy, and express the opinion that they could have a major impact on the outcome of the referendum. However, with two weeks to go, is it too late?

BBC News