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Disabled Representation in Parliament

disabled representation
women

Dr Sarabajaya Kumar

Centenary Action

Centenary Action’s Dr Sarabajaya Kumar discusses why more action is needed to support d/Deaf and disabled general election candidates.

Disabled people constitute a significant, yet often overlooked, minority group, comprising approximately  24% of the population. As such, we should have a voice and influence in our democratic structures equal to our presence in society. If disabled people were represented in Parliament in proportion to the population, there would be 156 disabled MPs. Unfortunately, the reality falls far short, with only five MPs disclosing they have a disability.

If d/Deaf and disabled people are underrepresented, so too will be the issues unique to us and the voices of those who can speak to our specific experiences. Too many decisions are being made that affect our lives without us being properly represented, resulting in policies that fail to account for our specific needs and experiences.

With an election this year there is the opportunity for more d/Deaf and disabled people to be elected, but urgent action is needed to make this a reality.

Gendered aspect of representation

This underrepresentation becomes even more pronounced when considering the gendered aspect, as women are statistically more likely to be disabled than men. This is compounded by the enduring underrepresentation of women in Parliament, where we make up only 35% of MPs despite constituting 51% of the population.

Having contested the GLA election in 2021, I faced additional costs as a disabled candidate. This was the impetus for me establishing the cross-party  Disabled Women in Politics Network, in order to address the particular issues faced by disabled women seeking to progress in politics. The regular roundtables provide a space for disabled women to come together and share our experience and learnings, and to take forward campaigns to remove the barriers we face.

Barriers to elected office

There are a multitude of barriers to elected office for d/Deaf and disabled people, including financial, attitudinal, and the lack of an accessible environment. Disabled women can face double discrimination for being disabled and female.

Being disabled costs more and therefore contesting an election as a disabled candidate necessarily incurs extra costs. Beyond the typical campaign costs faced by all candidates, we encounter additional disability-related expenses. For instance, these may include increased travel costs for people with mobility impairments to attend hustings and campaign events, or the provision of British Sign Language interpreters for d/Deaf people.

Financial support for disabled candidates

Financial support is essential to level the playing field for d/Deaf and disabled people seeking elected office. d/Deaf and Disabled candidates used to be able to access funding to cover their extra costs through the EnAble Fund (previously the Access to Elected Office Fund). However, despite evidence that such a fund is still necessary, the Government has so far failed to re-establish it.

The Government’s recently published Disability Action Plan commits to working with disabled people to establish a new fund in 2025. Whilst this is welcome, it will have no impact on the upcoming General Election, and we will have missed an important opportunity to make our democracy more representative.

Action is needed now

Urgent action is needed to ensure that d/Deaf and disabled candidates get the support we need to contest the upcoming General Election. The remaining parliamentary selections are now happening at pace, and will be completed very soon. Many d/Deaf and disabled people may already have been discouraged from contesting because of uncertainty about funding.

Past iterations of the Fund have demonstrated a positive impact, and the previous model could serve as a blueprint for establishing a temporary fund while a more permanent solution is devised. Money could be set aside immediately as the infrastructure template, although not perfect, is already there.

Cross-party support

Centenary Action’s joint campaign, with Disability Rights UK and Disability Policy Centre, for the reinstatement of the Access to Elected Office Fund has secured broad support from across the political spectrum. Liberal Democrat MP Daisy Cooper, a long-standing supporter of reinstating the fund, states that ‘disabled people are now not having their voices heard in Parliament’ due to the withdrawal of funding. Labour Peer David Blunkett has also supported the campaign, arguing for more local, mayoral, and Westminster candidates to be supported ‘who have life experience of disability’.

Moreover, candidates need to know they will have the additional funding they require in order to be able to contest elections. The Minister for Disabled People, Mims Davies MP, has also engaged positively, agreeing that ‘increasing the representation of disabled people is an important issue, and that we must work to help to remove the barriers which many disabled people face in accessing elected office.’ With cross-party agreement that the barriers to increasing disabled representation need to be removed, we hope this issue can be addressed with the urgency it deserves.

Benefits of diverse representation

Ensuring that d/Deaf and disabled people can contest elections and access elected office, is crucial not only for representation and diversity, but also for an inclusive, effective, and well-functioning democracy. Having d/Deaf and disabled people as elected representatives who can advocate for accessibility and inclusion benefits everyone.

Barriers that particularly exclude d/Deaf and disabled people from contributing to governance at all levels, means that as a country, we are missing out on a huge talent pool. To draw on all the available talent, we must dismantle the barriers that all d/Deaf and disabled people face, and especially those barriers faced by disabled women.

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