Opinion

Discrimination is holding disabled people back from politics – and I’ve seen it first hand

Discrimination is holding disabled politicians back – and I’ve seen it first hand

A street sign on a wall for Downing Street in London

Outside Downing Street, London. Image: Jordhan Madec on Unsplash

There’s a feeling of renewal in the air as we approach the general election this July. 

Polls can of course be misleading, but it’s fair to assume we’re in for a large-scale reset in British politics and the politicians within it. One thing won’t change, however, and that’s the representation of disabled people in the House of Commons. 

Research published this week by the think tank I co-founded and run, The Disability Policy Centre, shows this in stark terms. 

Our analysis of candidates more likely to win indicates there will be only nine disabled MPs in the 2024-2029 parliament. 

For context, that’s around 1% of the 650 total and is, staggeringly, a fall on our current parliament, which has 14 disabled MPs. Even if these projections prove to be slightly off, we’re still facing an enormous democratic deficit when the one in four disabled people (24%) across the country are not nearly represented at the epicentre of policymaking. 

And sadly it’s something I can corroborate with my personal experiences, too. As someone who’s worked in politics advocating for disability rights for years, I’ve seen first-hand how disabled people are sidelined from the process. 

And as someone with a long-term health condition, I know how complicated the process of identifying with the term ‘disabled’ can be, too. 

We at The Disability Policy Centre have spoken to candidates, for example, who’ve faced a culture of discrimination within their own parties. A culture which fails to support their most basic accessibility needs and makes them feel, in short, like they’re not welcome. 

One wheelchair-using candidate we spoke to even withdrew their candidacy because they did not believe that it was realistic, given the inaccessibility of the parliamentary estate.

This election, in fact, holds the unenviable record of being the first in more than a decade (since 2012) where government funding has not been available to help disabled candidates campaign (something which will, thankfully, be reinstated after this election). 

The horror stories that we hear at The Disability Policy Centre about the experiences of disabled people in politics do not surprise me anymore.

The long-serving MP for Harlow, Rob Halfon, who is himself disabled and standing down at this election, said “parliament is probably the worst place to work in the world if you have a disability”.

He also discussed setting up a road-side stall by the A414 in his constituency for one general election instead of going door-to-door – a tactic he also said worked well for him.

But Rob is also proof of what can be done by disabled politicians as someone who this year won Minister of the Year and has worked hard for disabled people both locally and nationally. 

Similarly, Marsha de Cordova, who is standing to be reelected for as Labour MP in Battersea, is also disabled and has been an outspoken advocate for improved disability rights. But importantly, her political contributions extend well outside of disability and into sport, social care, housing and human rights.  

Because more disabled politicians means a richer pool of insight across a range of areas, not just disability. 

While this problem may seem complex, however, some of the initial solutions can be incredibly simple. 

Firstly, we need to make parliament fully accessible. To state the obvious: disabled people can never feel part of the political process until they can get around the building place where most laws are made. 

Secondly, ableist culture needs to be expelled from political parties. It’s clear from the research we’ve done and what I‘ve heard that a discriminatory culture is extinguishing the political ambition of disabled people – and that’s inexcusable. 

Finally, disabled candidates need to be fully funded to overcome accessibility challenges when they’re on the campaign trail. Thankfully the Access to Elected Office Fund is coming back after this election, but we need to ensure it’s protected and funded sufficiently. 

These would represent just the first, smallest and most basic steps to start to spotlight the lived experiences of disabled people in our political debates. 

Until we do this, we can expect politicians to continue to misunderstand disability, and fail to be bold on the important challenges that affect us all today – from health, to housing, to education and welfare reform. 

Getting disability right gets it right for all of us.

Chloe Schendel-Wilson is co-founder and director of The Disability Policy Centre.

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