It is no secret that most disabled people are unhappy with the way in which our government cares for us, with policies concerning accessibility, health and social care, and welfare frequently coming under fire. Laws are implemented slowly, shoddily, and with caveats and loopholes that allow inaccessibility and discrimination to remain common. Similarly, the Department of Work and Pensions has garnered a nasty reputation for forcing disabled people into unsuitable living and working environments, or has simply left people to starve to death. Those of us lucky enough to receive any financial support are often made to feel as though Big Brother is constantly watching them, and that one wrong move such as briefly standing up could cost their financial stability.
There are lots of reasons why disability is so frequently mishandled, most of them containing £ signs, but one of the key factors in how disabled people are looked after is politics.
For the benefit of overseas audiences, UK politics is structured as follows:
The country is divided up into smaller areas called constituencies, which are represented in parliament by elected individuals called Members of Parliament (MPs). The majority of these representatives will belong to a political party such as the Conservatives (boo), Labour (yay), or the Liberal Democrats (meh), and should one party make up over half of all the MPs in parliament, they become the majority party and lead the government. Their leader, elected internally by party members, becomes Prime Minister and takes up residence in 10 Downing Street. The Prime Minister selects representatives from their party to form a cabinet, with representatives for the economy, health, education, internal affairs, foreign relations etc., and the leader of the party with opposing politics will do the same to form a “shadow” cabinet. This supposedly ensures that both the left- and right-wings of politics are cared for. At the time of publication, the Prime Minister is Boris Johnson, Conservative and hair afficionado, and the shadow leader of the Labour Party is a wet blanket barely worthy of mention. As you can tell, I have no particular biases in my reporting of the situation.
The first disabled MP, Jack Ashley, was elected in 1966 and at the time had some problems with his hearing. In 1967, an operation that attempted to address this issue failed, and as a result he became deaf. During his time in parliament he was a fierce advocate for deaf and disabled people, but essentially being alone in this there was only so much he could achieve. While there have been several other disabled MPs in the years since, the vast majority of representation from disabled individuals has only been since 2015.
There have been a few disabled members of the House of Lords, such as Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson. Members of the House of Lords are not elected and help refine bills before they make it into law, but again it would appear that the majority of any disability representation here is relatively recent.
There are three main reasons why it has historically been so difficult for disabled people to get into politics. First and foremost is money, as sponsoring a political campaign is expensive work even when backed by a political party. Also impacting political campaign work is travel, with hotels, trains, and taxis often being inaccessible or difficult to obtain to this day. Finally, once elected there is the question of being able to get into the Houses of Parliament themselves; the Palace of Westminster is a grade 1 listed building and while adaptations have been made, it has traditionally been difficult for those with mobility issues to navigate the building.
Of course, while it should not be the job of disabled people to represent ourselves in politics, currently we are often the best people for the job; we have the most in-depth knowledge and experience to guide policies and laws. Certainly prior to becoming disabled myself, had I been asked about accessibility standards in the UK, I would have assumed that most places were completely accessible without a second thought. This is just one reason why current (as of writing, anyway) Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work Justin Tomlinson MP is so unpopular, who to the best of my knowledge has absolutely no experience of long-term disability. Similarly, their opposing Shadow Minister from the Labour Party, Vicky Foxcroft MP, also lacks experience of disability. While disabled people are represented by this ministerial role, it is arguable whether or not we are represented well.
The reasons behind the discrimination of disabled people in the UK are far too complex to explore in a simple blog post, and political representation can only do so much. It is my belief, however, that better political representation for disabled people could do a lot to benefit us by shaping laws and wiping away the ableism within politics itself. After all, the mockery of a disabled journalist during an American presidential campaign is hardly the only incident of political ableism that springs to mind. Even just seeing disability in politics will help to dispel the taboo around it, a stigma which makes a considerable contribution to the ableism we experience.
In other words, as of right now, the best thing for disabled people is disabled politicians.