Currently, just five members of UK parliament have declared a disability, totalling 0.8 per cent of the commons, leaving 22 per cent of the UK population without a strong political voice. Emma Storr investigates what more needs to be done.
Positions of power in politics are key to democracy and ensuring fair, inclusive policy and legislation.
With little disability representation in politics across the UK, disabled voices aren’t adequately amplified to insight change.
“We are beginning to make progress with an increase in female and Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) politicians, however, disabled people are still under-represented,” emphasises Dr Lisa Cameron MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Disability.
“It’s important for disabled people to pursue careers as politicians to ensure policy meets disabled people’s needs and help break the stigma surrounding disability.”
This is something Labour MSP for Glasgow, Pam Duncan-Glancy feels passionate about as the first wheelchair user elected to Scottish parliament.
“For a long time, I’ve thought that if you’re not round the table you’re probably on the menu,” admits Pam.
“You can see in all legislation from housing to health that we’ve not been served well so for that to change, we really do have to start putting different people in the room.”
Until then, disability won’t be on the agenda in the way that it should be.
“It’s really important to me to have different people in parliament so that it looks like the country it’s supposed to be there to represent,” stresses Pam.
There has previously been schemes to combat the under-representation of disabled people in the political space – notably the EnAble Fund for Elected Office which ran from December 2018 to March 2020 in an effort to cover the additional financial costs associated with disability that could prevent someone from seeking elected office – but these haven’t gone far enough to combat barriers.
Part of the APPG on Disability’s work is investigating these barriers and what needs to be done to overcome them, Lisa explains: “This year, we have launched an inquiry into access to elected office. This inquiry will be looking at the barriers disabled people face being selected and standing for parliament.
“I believe many factors are contributing to this including financial costs, access to parliamentary buildings, travel supports across constituency and tailored mentoring supports to name just a few.”
As a recently-elected official, Pam is ready to act and utilise her position.
“Even just being there I think makes a difference but I’m not complacent, it’s not good enough to just be in the room, you then have to use that for the good of people’s equality and human rights.”
As politicians like Pam raise their voices from the inside, they highlight the societal inequalities preventing other minorities from getting access to the same rooms.
“Parties have a big role, parliament has a big role, but the other thing is if you can’t get out of bed in the morning because you don’t have enough social care then you’re not likely to start thinking about how you’re going to staff the barricades,” emphasises Pam.
“There are structural and systemic inequalities in society that oppress disabled people to the point that they cannot engage in very basic things like going to see family and friends, or holding down a job, or getting public transport, all of that also acts as a barrier to people putting themselves forward for elected office.
“I’m keen to bring any experience I can, be that lived or otherwise; I use social care, I employ staff as a disabled person.”
The general public’s perception of disability is a key barrier that needs to be removed in order to create change at a policy level and open access to elected office.
“I would like to see positive steps being taken to change the narrative surrounding disability,” enthuses Lisa.
“We need to move away from ableist and benefits-based narratives that have unfortunately become synonymous with disability and fully recognise the value and added potential of people’s contribution.”
For people with political ambitions and the drive to land a position like Pam’s, there has to be a greater provision of support in order for the disabled community to pursue careers in politics.
“We need long-term ring-fenced funding to assist candidates with disabilities standing for election to cover additional costs, alongside a push for equal opportunities in career progression in political offices and party structures,” advises Lisa.
Until more disabled people are given political opportunities and motivate parliament to implement inclusive policy and legislation, other areas of society, like workplaces and high streets, will also remain closed off.
“After the pandemic I think that there is an opportunity for us to say we don’t need certain things, going back to normal isn’t an option, normal was rubbish,” stresses Pam.
“Feel that sense of solidarity and those connections and use organisations to effect change at a political level, if anyone wants to get involved in politics at a party level then do it, all of the political parties are too pale, stale, male, they all need different people involved,” concludes Pam.
Greater access to elected office will be a pathway to inclusive policy and legislation, but without more schemes and funding to allow this, disabled people won’t be fairly represented.