Rachel Roberts finds out whether the country’s corridors of power are as accessible as they should be…
What happens in Parliament can quite literally be a matter of life and death for people with disabilities. Recent public spending cuts and controversial welfare reforms have disproportionately affected disabled people, with potentially worrying consequences for some of society’s most vulnerable people.
The much maligned bedroom tax has caused acute anxiety for many, and it’s been alleged that Atos’ Work Capability Assessments have in some cases driven disabled individuals to suicide. It is therefore vitally important that the UK’s 10.1 million disabled people be fully included in the democratic process, both as voters and as elected representatives. In theory at least, every adult has the right to vote and to become involved in politics themselves – but how open to disabled people is the political process in practice?
According to the campaign group Disability Politics UK, the House of Commons would need 65 disabled MPs to reflect the UK population – yet only a handful spring to mind. The most high-profile serving politician with a disability is arguably the former Home Secretary, David Blunkett, who was born blind and whose various guide dogs have proved popular additions to the Commons over the years. Bringing a less cute but equally functional aide to the house later on was Dame Anne Begg, when she became the first permanent wheelchair user in the Commons for a century upon being elected the member for Aberdeen South in 1997.
Anne, who lives with Gaucher’s Disease, believes that Parliamentary representation for disabled people is slowly improving. “The situation isn’t as bad as it once was,” she says, “but there‘s an issue around those with more moderate disabilities who won’t declare it, particularly around mental health.”
“We’ve never had a winning candidate who’s said they have a mental health condition in the past. They’ve only spoken about it once they’re already in the Commons. But that was true of homosexuality until 1997 – nobody openly gay had ever been elected – so these things can take a bit of time. When you talk about 10 million-plus disabled people, then over 50% per cent will have mental health problems. Less than 5% of the disabled population use a wheelchair, so you’re not going to see 60 wheelchair users in the House, or 60 blind people.”
Anne goes on to point out that the House of Lords currently has several wheelchair users, including former Paralympian Tanni-Grey Thompson, Jane Campbell and Susan Cunliffe-Lister – though given the Lords older demographic compared to the Commons, age-related disability is more prevalent in the upper chamber.
Addressing the supply side
It’s a similar story in local government. Around 10% of councillors are believed to have some form of disability, including age-related conditions which have developed since they took office. From 2008 until 2010 Anne was vice-chair of the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation, which examined why the House was perceived as being unrepresentative of the general population. In her view, the Conference’s key finding concerned the role political parties can play in including people from under-represented groups when drawing up candidate shortlists – though she concedes that this isn’t easy to achieve.
“You can only do that when you address what we call the ‘supply-side’, when you’re encouraging people with disabilities to get active in politics in the first place through joining the parties, mentoring and talent-spotting,” she says. “Disabled people need to gain suitable experience before putting themselves forward for selection, whether in local government or something similar.”
The problem with this is that disabled people are less likely to work in senior managerial or professional roles compared to the general population. A former teacher herself, Anne gained experience of leadership as head of English in a secondary school, while also being active in a union and at her local Labour Part branch. She never dreamed of ending up in Westminster, however, and had to be persuaded to stand when Aberdeen South chose to have an all-female shortlist.
“A disability or an ethnicity shortlist is probably not appropriate in the same way, as you’re not talking about half the population,” Anne says. Instead, she suggests using ‘soft quotas’ of disabled and ethnic minority candidates when compiling shortlists, so that such groups at least have the chance to compete for selection.
Many groups believe that much more needs to be done to include disabled people in grassroots politics. RADAR (now Disability Rights UK) Chief Executive, Liz Sayce, told the Speaker’s Conference that, “There has been less positive action, less specific work by political parties on disability than there has been on race or gender.”
Scope has meanwhile urged all parties to take steps towards improving access to local party meetings and other events, highlighting the common lack of communication facilities, such as hearing loops and signage, at the venues where these typically take place.
Another barrier preventing people with disabilities from entering politics is the ‘demand side’, with outmoded attitudes about the capabilities of disabled people continuing to linger. “Before I was elected, for 18 months I was out on the streets of Aberdeen every Saturday introducing myself,” Anne recalls. Some people would come up and try to give me money, thinking I must be collecting for charity!”
Being an MP is a very demanding job, something that will inevitably put off many people whether they have a disability or not. As Anne notes, “My constituency is 500 miles from Westminster, and you do need an awful lot of stamina. But anybody with a chronic condition will have learned ways to manage it and to make the most of what you’ve got.”
Then there’s costs of campaigning. On the back of the Speaker’s Conference, the Access to Elected Office for Disabled People Fund was established in 2012 to assist disabled candidates with any additional disability-related costs they may incur when standing in local or national elections. Anne says that while the £2.6 million fund is useful, a lack of publicity means those who need it most are not necessarily aware that it exists. The fund’s future beyond March 2015 is currently uncertain.
Makers and shapers
Looking ahead, the Labour Party has selected three new disabled candidates to contest seats in the 2015 general election and the Liberal Democrats two. The Conservatives are yet to declare, but taking into account ‘hidden disabilities’, the picture may be more positive than such statistics suggest.
The success of the Paralympics in improving attitudes towards disability may in time filter through into the political arena, in such a way that disabled people are seen less as passive recipients of public services, and more as makers and shapers of policy.
“Politics is certainly not for the faint-hearted,” concludes Anne, “but having said that, I would encourage anyone with a disability who wants to get involved to go for it. It can be such a rewarding job when you actually get to make a difference to people’s lives.”
Every Vote Counts
In 2010 Scope produced a report titled Polled Apart, which looked at the access provisions available to disabled voters. While the report found that there had been ‘significant’ access improvements since 1992 – mainly due to the disability discrimination legislation – it also found that at the 2010 general election some 14% of polling stations remained inaccessible, suggesting that there was some way still to go.
Since 2000, returning officers have had a duty to provide large-print ballot papers and a tactile voting device at all polling stations [PDF], which has gone some way towards helping visually impaired voters. However, there are still issues when it comes to ensuring that the UK’s 1.6 million adults with learning disabilities are able to exercise their right to vote – often due to a lack of understanding and appropriate information.
In a recent Mencap survey, 17% of respondents reported being turned away from polling booths at this year’s local elections, despite 70% of people with learning disabilities stating they would like to vote – a figure well above the turnout for the general population.
The charity United Response has recently relaunched its Every Vote Counts! campaign, which aims to help people with intellectual disabilities understand more about political issues. It also produces the bi-monthly, politically neutral Easy News newspaper, which seeks to report current affairs in an accessible way.
There is concern amongst disability groups that changes currently underway to the voter registration system – which will see the end of household registrations for favour of individual voter registration – may cause even more people to be left off the electoral roll. With polls suggesting that it will be a tight race come next May, politicians of all parties might be well advised to reach out to disabled voters by whatever means necessary.