Barriers to elected office for disabled people

Dr Elizabeth Evans Goldsmiths, University of London and Dr Stefanie Reher, University of Strathclyde

Disabled people, who make up around 1 in 5 of the UK population, are thought to be under-represented in politics at different levels of government, both across the UK and internationally. The purpose of this report is two-fold: first, it provides an overview of the state of political representation of disabled people in the UK and around the world. Second, it identifies and analyses the barriers to achieving and holding elected office faced by disabled people in the UK. To date, few governments, and political parties outside of the UK have taken steps towards improving access to elected office for disabled people. As such, the array of policies and measures already in place in the UK are relatively advanced. Nonetheless, interviews with disabled people in England and Wales who aspired to stand for election, stood as candidates, and who were successful in being elected as candidates revealed that they continue to face a range of barriers during the various stages of the recruitment and representation processes.

A range of studies show that disabled people tend to be less engaged in politics. This is partly due to the inequalities they face in education, employment and income. Yet, many disabled voters also face a range of barriers due to the inaccessibility of information and campaign material, polling stations, and ballot papers.

The Equality Act 2010 states that political parties must not directly or indirectly discriminate against disabled members or candidates. Reasonable adjustments must be made to ensure that disabled people are not treated unfairly, and that positive action is permitted in order to encourage and facilitate the participation of disabled people in politics and their election to public office. Several political parties as well as governmental bodies in the UK have adopted various strategies to increase the political participation and representation of disabled people, including: mentoring programmes; internships; and financial support programmes in the form of the Access to Elected Office for Disabled People Fund, the Access to Elected Office Fund in Scotland and the interim EnAble fund.

For this report, 45 interviews were undertaken with disabled MPs, former MPs, local councillors, prospective parliamentary candidates, local candidates, as well as people who had considered standing for election or who had tried to get selected. The sample of interviewees was relatively diverse in terms of party membership, gender and region within England and Wales. As part of these interviews, a number of barriers were explored in relation to: participation; selection; election; and representation. Strategies for overcoming these barriers were also identified.

Disabled people face a number of barriers when participating in party politics, including venue accessibility, lack of interpretation, inaccessible formatting of materials, lack of facilities, and cultural barriers – including a lack of awareness, knowledge and interest on the part of some local parties to make politics more accessible for disabled people. Those interviewees who had been active in party and electoral politics from a young age, and those who developed their impairment after they had already been actively involved in politics, tended to report fewer barriers.

Many disabled people reported receiving active encouragement and support from their party to seek selection. At the same time, they encountered a number of barriers which made it difficult to fully participate in assessment days, successfully complete the application process, and/or effectively campaign for the support of local party members. Financial constraints presented a frequent barrier, for example some interviewees expressed the fear of losing of benefits. Some disabled people who had sought selection also reported facing heightened scrutiny and negative attitudes about their ability to fulfil the roles of candidate or political representative.

Disabled candidates from all parties experienced a range of barriers during their election campaigns, and particularly in relation to canvassing. They include fatigue, lack of accessible transport, and inaccessible roads and buildings. Overcoming these barriers tends to involve high financial costs which are not often covered by the political parties. Hustings too can be stressful and inaccessible for disabled candidates, particularly for neurodiverse or deaf candidates. Some disabled candidates also reported how their impairments had been perceived or politicised in order to suggest that they were not up to the job.

Disabled politicians, at both the local and national level, reported that some of the barriers which they had experienced during the selection and election process did not disappear once they had been elected. Interviewees reported continued issues around accessibility, the formatting of materials, and bureaucratic processes which made it harder for reasonable adjustments to be made. Disabled politicians observed that these barriers meant that they typically spent far more time fulfilling their duties than their non-disabled colleagues.

Disabled aspirant candidates, candidates, and elected representatives all identified various strategies for overcoming the barriers highlighted above. The strategies principally revolved around the development of personal and informal support networks, the use of social media to make their work and campaigns visible, assistive technologies, developing a sense of assertiveness to challenge perceptions, and securing funding, from schemes such as from the Access to Elected Office Fund.

A core principle of representative democracy is that all sections of the public have equal rights and opportunities to participate in political decision-making, both as citizens and as representatives. Yet, as this report shows, disabled people who stand for elected office or seek to do so face a multitude of barriers. The nature of the barriers varies between individuals, and depends, for instance, on a person’s impairment, political experience, and the levels of support they receive from their party. At the same time, the research reported here also finds many similarities in the experiences of disabled people in politics as well as continuities across the various stages of the representation process at both the local and national level. All of the interviewees emphasised the importance of reducing the barriers and improving access in order to increase the presence of disabled people in politics.