by Dame Anne Begg
Published: 21 Oct 2015
When I got elected to Parliament in 1997, I was determined I wouldn’t be seen as 'the disabled MP'. After all, I had been elected by my constituents to represent them all and raise issues which mattered to them all, not just those who had a disability.
I wanted to be the MP who 'just happened' to have a disability particularly as I didn’t feel I could speak on behalf of ALL disabled people. My experiences of disability as a wheelchair user were very different from those of a deaf person or someone with a mental health problem. We are not a homogenous group.
However, it didn’t take me long to realise that if I didn’t speak out as a disabled person on issues of particular concern to disabled people, then no-one else would, or at least not with the same authority.
This illustrates why it is important in a democracy to make sure those elected to serve at a local or national level should come from a wide range of backgrounds, with a range of lived experiences. This is easier to say than do. Becoming an elected politician - from whatever background - is not easy. For a start, you need to belong to a political party and been involved in some kind of campaigning work. You need to demonstrate you can fight on behalf of others. If disabled people are not given a chance to develop these skills, it is unlikely they will be chosen to stand as a candidate by their Party.
So it is no surprise that a number of the recommendations of the Speaker’s Conference on Political Representation in 2010 revolved around addressing the 'supply side' of the problem. We need to encourage and support disabled people to develop the skills constituency Parties look for in their prospective Councillor or MP.
Hidden in the 2010 Equality Act is an obligation for political parties to publish diversity information about those going through their candidate selection, with a view to identifying and tackling the barriers under-represented groups may face. Unfortunately, this provision was not enacted and, despite me chasing the Parties up during the last Parliament, only the Lib Dems came close to fulfilling it.
Yes, political parties should do more to identify and support interested disabled people in putting themselves forward. But the encouragement needs to start even further back – in schools, colleges and universities; in community groups and single issue pressure groups; in the work place and through leisure activities.
By the time I got selected as a candidate I had already fought and won a few battles, not least of becoming a teacher despite my disability. I was active in my Trade Union and had spoken at Labour Party conferences. I had the kind of “track record” the party members were looking for.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 - which entered the statute books 20 years ago and was succeeded by the Equality Act 2010 five years ago - should mean more disabled people have the opportunities to gain this track record than they did when we couldn’t even get in the building!
However, legislation can only go so far in removing some of the invisible barriers disabled people face. Disabled people have to believe that by taking action they can change things, then they are more likely to get involved in all aspects of life and believe a career in politics is possible. Improving the 'supply side' means encouraging disabled people and providing them with opportunities to show what they can do at every stage of their personal and 'career' development.
Most won’t become politicians, but more than there are today will. However, more importantly, all will have been empowered to succeed in whatever career they choose to follow.
Read our response to the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities call for evidence on the right of persons with disabilities to participate in decision-making.
Smoothing the Pathway to Politics for Disabled People