Why aren't more disabled people becoming politicians?

David Blunkett and his guide dog David Blunkett reached the top of politics but not many disabled people have followed

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Although one in six people have a disability, only a handful of our MPs are disabled people.

And it seems despite the success of the likes of Jack Ashley and David Blunkett, the political representation of disabled people hasn't really improved substantially in recent years.

Perhaps it's asking too much to expect one in six MPs to have some form of disability, but surely it would be better if the commons chamber looked a bit more like the society it governs?

Disabled people might also wonder whether the policies that affect them might be drawn a little differently if they had more of a say.

The experience of one disabled councillor in York might not encourage others to enter politics though.

Lynn Jeffries has been a well-known campaigner on disability issues for more than 20 years.

In fact she was so well-known that in 2010, Labour approached her to join the party and stand for the council.

After some hesitation, she decided that she might be able to achieve even more inside the political machine.

Start Quote

Lynn Jeffries

There was quite a lot of being patronised, and a lot of believing that disabled people are people you do things for”

End Quote Councillor Lynn Jeffries Disabled York councillor

Two years on, although she remains a councillor, she has resigned from the Labour group after finding it hard to get her voice heard.

She said: "There was quite a lot of being patronised, and a lot of believing that disabled people are people you do things for.

"That's such a shame because what councils miss is that experience of being a disabled person.

"It's so valuable to them in terms of policy-making as disabled people bring solutions to their own difficulties.

"Not to get that and not to engage with disabled people is quite a loss really."

Party system

At the time of her resignation York's Labour group leader accused Ms Jeffries of walking out after failing to win the arguments within the group.

But the campaigner felt the party whip prevented her speaking when she disagreed with policies that affected disabled people.

And other campaigners also fear they would get lost in the party system.

Steve Wilkinson is well-known in Newcastle and beyond for his campaigning zeal on disability access. He's clashed with councils over the years about their lack of action.

And the wheelchair user has been asked whether he would be interested in entering politics. But he says that's not for him.

He said: "I think with the first past the post system you really have to be either Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat or perhaps UKIP.

Disability protesters holding banners Disabled people have protested about the impact of politicians' decisions but few enter parliament

"You could stand as an independent, but the chances are you wouldn't get elected, so I don't think I'd be able to champion the causes of the people I'd want to represent."

Of course there are also other barriers as well. Not all of our council offices and ministries have great disabled access, and extra support might be needed.

But there is some help at hand with those issues.

Last year the government began offering grants to disabled people with aspirations to enter politics.

The Access to Elected Office for Disabled People fund has £2.6m available.

Individuals can apply for up to £20,000 to help them stand for office.

The government says it's about levelling the playing field rather than giving disabled people an unfair advantage.

For example, the money could be used to support the extra transport costs of someone with mobility problems or provide sign language interpreters for deaf people.

Disabled Prime Minister?

And some people do think there are grounds for optimism.

Start Quote

Alison Blackburn

I do think over the years things will change and we will get more disabled people in politics”

End Quote Alison Blackburn Chair, Newcastle Disability Forum

Newcastle Disability Forum's chair Alison Blackburn believes we could even have a disabled prime minister in the future.

She said: "Anything in politics is gruelling and the person has got to be supported with certain areas of their disability and in their home life.

"But I do think over the years things will change and we will get more disabled people in politics."

But so far interest in that government access fund has been limited.

By February 2013, just £33,970 has been awarded to six applicants, with six more applications being considered.

If that sluggish pace continues only a fraction of the fund will be spent by the time it's due to end in summer 2014.

Some then believe further change is needed. The campaign group Disability Politics UK wants the law changed to allow MPs to job share.

It believes that would allow more disabled people to enter parliament.

Labour MP John McDonnell has presented a private members bill to make it possible, but without government support it is unlikely to succeed.

But perhaps our political parties also need to look at their own attitudes.

Lynn Jeffries certainly believes the existing political elite needs to change its attitude to remove psychological as well as physical barriers.

She said: "Lots of the barriers start because councillors don't engage properly with disabled people.

"To be honest, unless that changes I do not think we will get disabled people wanting to be councillors."

Richard Moss Article written by Richard Moss Richard Moss Political editor, North East & Cumbria

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  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Perhaps the lack of representation from disabled folk is that there are fewer self-obsessed people among them willing to trample over others to serve their own interests..

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    @11 Hardly! There's barely an MP who has ever had a job for starters!

    I'd be interested to know which one you think represents me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    9.Bored - "There seems to be no place for a white, English, Christian, self-employed, heterosexual, familyman in parliament either.

    The disabled are not alone in feeling unrepresented."

    You have just described EXACTLY the people who make up a majority in Parliament....!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Having been on a tour round Parliament I imagine the access for people with mobility issues is a bit of a nightmare.

    I can imagine a wheelchair user getting a seat on the front bench, because they can't physically get to the back.

    Political p-arties these days choose they're candidates as much for style a substance, so its unsuprising t5hat all minorities are under represented.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    There seems to be no place for a white, English, Christian, self-employed, heterosexual, familyman in parliament either.

    The disabled are not alone in feeling unrepresented.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    We should be far more concerned about the quality of MP’s being elected rather than what social group they come from.

    Parliament is full of too many SPADS & careerists, who have no record of achievement outside politics & very little expertise.

    We should drop our hang-up about what they’re paid & encourage the most able individuals to serve (preferably 2 terms max)

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Cue all the knuckledraggers moaning about "PC".

    Five, four, three.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Choose the best candidate, regardless of whether or not they have a disability. Blunkett was a good politician - the fact he was blind was irrelevant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The glass ceiling and lack of unity will always prevent disabled becoming representatives. From an deaf aspect it is clear that sector takes no interest whatever in local or national issues, concentrating only on own social/cultural aspects. Lack of local level involvement means able-bodied voters are unlikely to vote for them. We have the nous, we don't have the desire.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    The reason why some groups are over-represented and others under-represented in Parliament is because of our election system, which selects the majority view in each constituency. Would any other system be any better? Who knows!

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Parliament Should be Representive of peoples views, it isn't just about what "catagory" they belong to, these are very unfair, and in fact, labeling these people as so, is undermining them.

    Parliament Should Be About Representing All People, Not just a Catagory, or every catagory.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Parliament, as with many areas of life, is over presresented by:


    White people

    Those who are not disabled

    The middle aged

    The middle class

    the systems self perpetuate......there is a reason for the sayings "old school network" & "old boys network"......

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Fundamentally, politics is filled with people who think that they know better than everyone else so it's not surprising that a lone individual with a particular interest finds that their voice goes unheard... particularly if they don't hold a 'mainstream' view on that issue. Blunkett was interested in politics, rather than his own disability, whilst your examples started off disability campaigners


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