A new scheme aims to encourage more disabled people into politics and develop a cross-party network of ambassadors, writes Mark Gould in the the Guardian
If the House of Commons were truly reflective of the people it represents, at least 65 would be disabled. But, as the country prepares to vote in the local elections tomorrow, it is unlikely that many disabled people will be among those elected. While there are 10 million people registered disabled in the UK, there are no formal figures on the number of disabled election candidates; those standing for local or national office are not obliged to disclose such information.
The little research that does exist includes work by the University of Plymouth's elections centre. It conducted random surveys in 2008 and 2009 with more than 1,000 local election candidates. In 2008, when asked what best described their situation, 2.8% of candidates stated they were permanently sick or disabled. In 2009, the figure was 1.3%.
Given the prejudice and stigma experienced by disabled people, it is easy to imagine how disability might be regarded as a vote loser, or activists might be put off supporting disabled candidates who need extra support. But the government hopes to encourage more disabled people into local and national politics, and to improve public attitudes to disability through a new training and development scheme.
The Access to Elected Office for Disabled People project includes plans for a £1m fund to help disabled politicians meet costs. Political parties will be asked to improve their internal disability policies and to work with the umbrella organisation, the Local Government Association, and disabled organisations to develop a cross-party network of disabled councillors and MPs, who would become ambassadors and role models for aspiring candidates. Consultation on the scheme ends this month and it should start later this year.
David Blunkett, blind since birth, and perhaps the UK's most well-known disabled politician, became a councillor in Sheffield 41 years ago. He says technological advances and legislation have helped to drive equality, and that he was never aware of other politicians or the public feeling that as a blind person he was not up to the job.
"Obstacles arise out of fear or ignorance of disability, people not knowing what is possible or how best to help," he says, "with occasional paternalistic blips where individuals have been disquieted by the thought that someone with a major challenge could work not just on equal terms, but succeed in the same professional sphere that they are in. Much of this is covert rather than overt."
Rosemary Gilligan, elected to Hertsmere borough council, in 2002, has severe arthritis, the chronic fatigue syndrome myalgic encephalopathy (ME), and uses crutches. She benefited from a one-year leadership programme run by the disability charity Radar. Gilligan, a former mayor at the Conservative-run council, says people with physical and learning difficulties can get involved in politics.
"On the leadership programme you meet people with learning disabilities, people who are deaf or blind," she says, "but you start talking to them and you get to know, with a bit of help and technology, they can get over them." Gilligan cites the example of a councillor in Stevenage with severe mobility problems who used telephone canvassing during the last elections.
Wheelchair-using peer Lady Jane Campbell has spinal muscular atrophy and needs help with most tasks. She wants imaginative ideas for overcoming problems. "Many disabled people would want to get out on the street and knock on doors and canvass but, for some, like me, it would be impossible. It might be that we find other ways of engaging the public."
Campbell has already successfully challenged parliament to find one solution: "I am physically unable to make long speeches so I asked if another lord could speak for me," she explains. "They initially said, 'It wouldn't be your speech.' I said that was nonsense, I wrote the speech. They finally agreed. If you can change hundreds of years of tradition you can do anything, and we do need to change to include disabled people because it's not a democracy if we don't."
Mark Gould, the Guardian