Disability and “digital democracy”

By Janine Booth, TUC Disabled Workers’ Committee chair and Momentum member in Hackney (pc)

Momentum is currently debating its structures, with one proposal being that it make key decisions by online plebiscites/referendums.

The case put forward for this is that it is more inclusive and democratic than delegate-based conferences, and one aspect of that case is that online voting is more accessible to disabled people than conferences are. It is this aspect that I want to address here.

(Janine Booth with John McDonnell MP, who wrote the forward to her book “Autism equality in the workplace”)

Conferences can be very inaccessible and disabling. If it is not the travelling to get there, it is the steps into the conference hall, or the difficulty in getting accommodation. Or it is the lack of materials in any format other than print, or the sensory overload, or the toilets, or the bureaucracy and the jargon.

However, online technology is not the wholly-accessible alternative that it is often assumed or portrayed to be. There is a digital divide, with poverty, age and disability significant factors in inequality of access.

• 5.2m UK households do not have internet access, and 16m people aged over 15 do not have basic online skills.
• 55% of disabled people access the internet, compared with 83% of non-disabled people, and 25% of UK adults who describe themselves as disabled have never accessed the internet.
• People with mobility impairments, who are most likely to live alone and have a lower household income, are among those with the lowest levels of internet access.
(all figures from the Keep Me Posted campaign)

Moreover, even if you can access online voting, clicking yes or no just means choosing between options that someone else has formulated. It does not involve drawing up policies, adding important issues, or amending wording to improve its meaning. Issues that arise during debate – such as disabled people’s perspectives – may fall by the wayside.

If there is a proposal, then an opposition to that proposal, discussion may then develop a position that draws on both and resolves the differences between them. If the discussion does not end in consensus, it may at least polish up each side of the argument and clarify their differences and relative merits. Yes/no plebiscites miss out this important process. Even with a conference debate followed by an online plebiscite, those who can only be involved in the online voting miss out on the crucial discussion stage.

Advocates of online voting no doubt genuinely want to improve access to democracy for disabled members. But the proposal for online voting is not only limited in its democracy, it could also have unintended negative consequences. If disabled people can vote from home, then that reduces the incentive to make events accessible. It reinforces the damaging view – and, for some, the reality – of disabled people as isolated and housebound.

The labour movement and the disabled people’s movement support the social model of disability. This model explains that society disables people with impairments by placing barriers in our way.

We can make our meetings, events and conferences more accessible by applying the social model in practice. We can remove barriers by, for example: using physically accessible venues; providing accessible transport and accommodation; providing conference documents (motions, agendas etc) in formats including Braille, large print and audio, and provide sign-language interpretation. We can schedule regular breaks, reduce the sensory stimulation of the conference environment, and allocate chill-out space. We can facilitate helpers to attend with delegates, and allow job-share delegates who can alternate time in the conference session. We can reduce bureaucracy and avoid or explain jargon.

We can organise accessible local meetings to submit proposals, nominate candidates and elect and mandate delegates, so that members do not have to travel to a national conference to have their input into the decision-making process.

We can also use technology. Perhaps a person who becomes unable to attend could participate in a meeting by Skype. Documents can be circulated quickly and widely in electronic form, and software such as Dragon and voice-to-text applications can enable dyslexic members to better access materials. Online discussions in the run-up to meetings and conferences can prepare members and delegates for the debates.

Allow me a brief digression to illustrate my core argument.

In our workplaces and public services, technology can be used to improve provision and working conditions, but all too often employers and providers instead use it as a pretext to cut jobs and dehumanise services. Where I work, on the railway, we fight for technology to be deployed alongside and complementary to staff not to replace staff. We want ticket offices as well as smartcards, guards as well as automatic train protection.

I am a big fan and a constant user of technology. It can be very enabling. But it can be disabling too. It depends on how we use it.

Let’s use technology, but let’s not use it to replace face-to-face participatory democracy.

Let us know what you think? Write a reply? theclarionmag@gmail.com


  1. I take on board all your comments re accessibility here, Janine. I’m not a fan of online conferencing and I’m not disabled. Face to face meetings are a richer experience for everyone. What I do think we need is to take a completely fresh look at how we hold discussions and make decisions. We live in a world where many of us want a democracy that is more participative than the current representational structures allow us. I don’t think it’s going to be easy to do this, but I think it will be worth spending some time together inventing some alternatives These may not end up being perfect but a range of new structures and processes might give a greater number of people a chance to be heard and heeded.

  2. I agree. I really hope the whole debate in Momentum isn’t presented as being boring meetings vs online voting. We have to do better than those two options. But flipping from one to the other, based on inaccurate assumptions about online voting being more accessible, risks hollowing out democracy before we have even had a chance to discuss improving it.

    1. Hi Janine
      Great article
      I am trying to find income and poverty figures by categorization of disabled vs non disabled – any clues?

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