The 2017 general election saw a step forward for disabled representation in parliament – but there is still a great deal of work to be done, writes Emily Brothers
It is great to see Labour’s representation of disabled people rise from one to three and across the House of Commons from three to six at the 2017 general election, bearing in mind it could be greater as some members of parliament do not openly identify. Based on estimates of disability demographics, the equality and human rights commission suggests there should be 65 disabled MPs today. Clearly, there is a long way to go.
Since Sir Frances Bryan was elected MP for Buckinghamshire in 1529, disabled people have been elected to parliament. Even prime ministers have served with a disability, such as Lord North and Winston Churchill. Most acquired their disability during adulthood, most notably in military action. Identifying as war veterans, they had little regard for disability.
Indeed, many politicians have hidden their impairment, as they see it as a risk to their political career. Having to ‘admit’ to needing some kind of adjustment because of a disability has the potential of undermining your ability to compete in a fiercely competitive environment.
The notion that ‘equal’ means being treated the same has long been flawed, but people cling to it in the hope of being ‘normal’. With the emergence of the social model and rights-based approach to disability, there is growing acceptance that different policies and practices should be applied so that there is a level playing field.
This means tackling barriers that get in the way of participation. Solutions will depend on impairment and how this interacts with campaigning, council business or the cut and thrust of parliament.
Despite this progressive thinking, barriers to participation remain stubbornly in place. Many disabled people are held back from opportunity, with constituency Labour party’s often ruling out our participation because we do not door-knock. Yet we can contribute in so many other ways, from telephone canvassing to maintaining websites.
The current mantra is for the many, not the few. Great socialist thinking, but hang on – this has not quite translated into action for disabled people. The world is designed for the many and we are the excluded few. As Labour builds a future for the many, it has to face up to the challenge of meeting the needs and aspirations of the few – not the rich, but those who require a different route to inclusion.
Why is this important? Surely Labour is best placed to look after us vulnerable people with the army of carers paid the living wage? Doesn’t that contrast well with the nasty Tory Party who cut benefits and run down care services that protect us?
No, absolutely not. Disabled people have aspirations too. None of us want to scrounge for benefits, but get out their in our communities, learn and work. In striving for improved life chances – from bringing up a family to succeeding at work – we encounter barrier after barrier. We are the left behind.
Labour’s 2017 disability manifesto articulates the development of policy within the context of the social model, recognizing that it is not our impairment that disabled us, but the policies, practices and procedures that society puts in our way. This acknowledgement after thirty years campaigning by the disability movement for that principle is hugely welcome. Accepting this theoretical basis is progress, but translating it into action is the real challenge.
The case for taking on this task is simple enough. The cost of exclusion is greater than the cost of inclusion. Disabled people are twice as likely to be unemployed than non-disabled people. Closing that gap by 10 per cent would result in an extra £12 billion being contributed to the exchequer. How this is achieved sets out the battleground between Tory and Labour. The government has cut benefits as a perverse way to incentivise people to work. The opposition to that is clear, as many disabled people undoubtedly need the safety net of the state. In addition to that Labour needs to better tap into the talents and ambitions of those disabled people who are able to take part, but need those barriers demolished.
Over the years non-disabled people have spoken for us and decided whether we take sugar or not. If the everyday needs and aspirations of disabled people are to be addressed, our voices need to be heard and our influence utilized to change Britain. The motto of the disability movement is ‘nothing about us without us’ and anything short of that lacks authenticity and inclusion.
Emily Brothers was parliamentary candidate for Sutton and Cheam in 2015 and London assembly candidate in 2016. She was Labour’s first transgender candidate for Westminster or devolved assembly. She tweets at @EBrothersLabour
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