There is a key way in which the recent Scottish Parliament election result has badly let disabled people down. With one in five members of the working age population being disabled, a fully representative Scottish Parliament would contain around 23 disabled MSPs. Before the election there were three disabled MSPs. One way or another we lost all three, and so far it would appear that our newly elected Scottish parliament has just one new openly disabled member – Jeremy Balfour MSP (Conservative, Lothian region). Less than 1% of our new Parliament are openly disabled.
During a time when disabled people are increasingly being put under pressure by cuts to social security, punitive sanctions, undignified and often inaccessible assessment processes and increasing cost of living, the need for more disabled people in our democracy has never been greater. Disabled representatives can also bring additional benefits to the role, such as a more varied perspective on many of the challenges faced by their constituents and lived experience that may offer a much deeper understanding of the effect some decisions can have.
So why are there so few disabled MSPs, and disabled politicians more generally? The reasons are many. Among the greatest are the many barriers that make politics itself less accessible to disabled people, a lack of reasonable adjustments to ensure full inclusion, and poor attitudes and prejudice about the ability and contributions disabled people could bring. At Inclusion Scotland, we are working to address this through an advice and support project for disabled political activists and parties and groups that wish to improve access – the Access to Politics project. This year, we begin running a new pilot financial assistance fund to pay additional costs faced by disabled people who put themselves forward for selection and election in next year’s council elections.
But there is another great barrier preventing more disabled people being elected. We need more disabled people to put themselves forward, and to get involved in politics at all levels. Most elected politicians don’t get elected without having been involved for a period of time, developing their skills, discovering a passion for representing others. If we are to make getting elected more accessible for disabled people, we need more disabled people involved pushing for it. There are few better places for this to start than on Community Councils, which have such an important role to play in ensuring that planning decisions take account of inclusivity of all residents.
From my time as a chair of a community council I know there are challenges to this. Resources are very tight for Community Councils to make adjustments for some disabled people to participate, and this is an issue that local authorities must take action to address. But making a door easier to open will only matter if there are people willing and encouraged to push against it. To Community Councils I would say – reach out to encourage more disabled people to join, and then push to ensure they are fully included. To disabled people I would say – claim your rights to be involved, be included, and be heard.
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