In this contribution to Bulletin 26, Elizabeth Evans speaks to the barriers disabled people face when seeking to run for political office in Britain and explores the implications this carries for questions of justice and representation.
In 1866 Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh was elected to Parliament to represent the seat of County Wexford. His election is notable insofar as he is the first openly disabled MP for whom we have a record; and yet, few have ever heard his name. Indeed, the political representation of disabled people has attracted little by way of academic analysis or political attention. In July 2021, over 150 years after Kavanagh’s election, two disabled councillors were told that they could not participate in a debate regarding accessibility in York city centre because they were disabled—and would therefore be biased. Although the decision to bar the two councillors from participating in the debate was eventually overturned, the incident raises questions about how the link between lived experience and representation is, and should be, understood and valued. More broadly, the incident also calls attention to the barriers disabled people often face when they seek to participate in politics. Questions that my research explores.
Beginning with Kavanagh’s election, I compiled a database of all those MPs who publicly identified as disabled. This data was then used for two purposes: first, in order to understand the number of disabled politicians who have served, and are currently serving, at Westminster; and second, to examine the extent to which disabled MPs sought, or seek, to represent the issues and interests of disabled people, through analysis of Parliamentary activity. Only 30 disabled MPs are to be found in the database, which suggests that disabled people have been under-represented, because according to official statistics, around 20% of the UK population is disabled. That figure is likely to be higher given the various issues that pertain to collecting accurate data, not least the stigma associated with identifying as disabled. Definitions of disability vary. Following UK activists, my research defines disability according to the social model, which interprets disability as a phenomenon produced by society. Disability is here understood as a system in which people with impairments (whether physical, mental, cognitive, developmental or intellectual) experience discrimination and stigma. Importantly, disability is also produced in relation to its intersections with other structural forms of oppression such as gender, race and class.
Since 2019 I have been interviewing disabled politicians, disabled activists and disabled party members in the UK. Interviewees have described the number of barriers which they face, both during their campaigns to become a political candidate and then afterwards once they are elected. These barriers can be broadly grouped into 3 areas: 1) issues of accessibility—both in terms of buildings but also material which is not produced in accessible formats; 2) negative attitudes and stigma—especially related to capability; and 3) lack of resourcing to enable disabled people to participate. That disabled people face barriers to political participation matters in and of itself—as a matter of justice and equality—however, the fact that disabled people are numerically under-represented at Westminster also matters, because analysis of the parliamentary activity of disabled MPs has revealed that many of those MPs have actively sought to represent disabled people and to pursue disability-related policy. Of course, this is not to say that non-disabled people cannot represent the issues and interests of concern to disabled people, but that disabled people are likely to be the best advocates for disabled people because of their lived experience of disability.
The slogan at the heart of the disability rights movement, ‘nothing about us without us’, is instructive when thinking about why the good representation of disabled people requires disabled politicians. In creating this slogan, activists sought to reject the paternalistic approach to decision-making that was often undertaken by non-disabled people on behalf of disabled people, without the latter’s involvement or consent. This demand for political inclusion therefore centres upon the claim that lived experience of disability is necessary when it comes to decision-making that affects disabled people. Lived experience is a source of expertise that is distinct from expertise acquired otherwise. Non-disabled political representatives may have relevant knowledge about the lives of disabled people and the effects of policies on their lives, for example through caring for a disabled person, through working with disability rights organisations, or through doing research on disability. However, if they have never been disabled, they will not have the personal experience of living through the challenges that disabled people face. Knowledge from lived experience can be powerful: it gives individuals insight into issues which they may not necessarily have explicitly studied but have experienced; it means that they are likely to have tested and developed various potential solutions to challenges; and because recounting lived experience can bestow credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of other group members as well as non-members.
Interviews with disabled politicians and activists revealed that having elected representatives with lived experience of disability was considered vital when it came to representing disabled people, developing disability-related policy, and for tackling discrimination and stigma directed at disabled people. Interviewees noted that even though the disability community is diverse, having someone in the room who understood accessibility, ableist stigma and living as disabled in twenty-first century Britain was critical in order to create policies that had a positive impact on disabled people’s lives. Given the impact of over a decade of austerity politics which have hit disabled people particularly hard, many interviewees drew attention to the absence of disabled politicians in developing the welfare reforms which were so disastrous for disabled people. Similarly, research I have conducted on the manifestos produced by the two main parties revealed that it is only when the Labour Party began to create policy by collaborating with disabled people—through their disability equality roadshows ahead of the 2017 general election—that there was a significant increase in the number of disability-related policies.
Analysis of the parliamentary activity of those self-declared disabled MPs revealed examples of politicians who pushed for key pieces of legislation. For example, Labour MP Jack Ashley (1966–1992), played a key role in initiating and developing the Chronically Sick and Disabled Person’s Act 1970 – a landmark piece of legislation which included the key provision to require local authorities to collect data on the number of disabled people in order to make them and their policy needs ‘visible’; in addition, the Act dealt with accessible housing, transport and education. During a speech delivered during the second reading of the bill, Ashley made representations on behalf of the D/deaf community, of which he was a part. Noting his ‘particular interest in deafness’ and observing that ‘deaf people have been ignored’ constituting the ‘Cinderella of the disabled’, during his speech he drew not only on his own personal experience of deafness but also his active involvement with the wider D/deaf community. Similarly, Anne Begg MP (1997–2015), frequently spoke on disability issues, often grounding her questions and speeches within her own lived experiences. For example, speaking in 1999 in favour of the establishment of the Disability Rights Commission to tackle discrimination in the workplace, she noted, ‘I speak as one of those who have faced discrimination.’
In response to COVID-19, changes were made to the established political process, for instance through the introduction of remote voting, as well as online debates and committee meetings. All these changes made politics appear accessible to many disabled people, and yet despite the potential transformative impact of these changes there was a quick return to business as usual. At the local level this has had a devastating impact on disabled councillors. For example, Green Councillor Blossom Gottlieb is no longer able to fully participate in the work of East Hampshire District Council as English local councils are not legally permitted to conduct their meetings online (the situation is different in Wales and Scotland). While the changes wrought by COVID provided a moment to rethink how we do politics—and especially how we can make politics more accessible for all—this has not resulted in long-term change.
Research into disability and political representation revealed that having politicians with lived experience is important for disabled people, and that it is also important to have more disabled politicians—with a wide range of impairments—as a matter of equality and justice. It is important because disabled politicians are more likely to think about disability when it comes to policy-making—no matter how sympathetic a non-disabled person is, research has found that stigma and discrimination against disabled people remains. Finally, it is important to have more disabled people in positions of power in order to counter negative stereotypes surrounding disability, especially the idea that disabled people are not capable of serving as elected representatives.
 Sarah Steele, The Right Honourable Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh, a Biography (2010 : General Books).
 See https://yorkmix.com/u-turn-by-officers-who-tried-to-stop-two-york-councillors-with-disabilities-speaking-in-debate/
 Office for National Statistics, ‘Outcomes for disabled people in the UK: 2020’, 18 February 2021, available online: www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/disability/articles/outcomesfordisabledpeopleintheuk/2020
 Lisa Schur, Douglas Kruse, and Peter Blanck, People with Disabilities: Sidelined or Mainstreamed? (Cambridge 2013: Cambridge University Press).
 Mike Oliver, Social work with Disabled People (Basingstoke 1983: Macmillan); Mike Oliver, ‘The social model of disability: Thirty years on’, Disability & Society 28, no. 7 (2013): 1024–1026.
 Nirmala Erevelles, Disability and Difference in Global Contexts (New York 2011: Palgrave).
 This is part of a wider project which I am working on with Stefanie Reher.
 Elizabeth Evans and Stefanie Reher, ‘Disability and Political Representation: Analysing Barriers to Elected Office’, International Political Science Review (2020), DOI:10.1080/09687599.2022.2045191.
 James Charlton, Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability Oppression and Empowerment (Berkeley, CA 2000: University of California Press).
 Ian McIntosh and Sharon Wright, ‘Exploring what the Notion of “Lived Experience” Offers for Social Policy Analysis’, Journal of Social Policy 48, no. 3 (2019): 449–467.
 Ellen Clifford, The War on Disabled People: Capitalism, Welfare and the Making of a Human Catastrophe (London 2020: Bloomsbury Publishing).
 Elizabeth Evans, ‘Disability Policy and UK Political Parties: Absent, present or absent-present citizens?’, Disability & Society (2022), DOI:10.1080/09687599.2022.2045191.
 See Disability News Service reporting on the issue https://www.disabilitynewsservice.com/greens-call-for-end-to-discriminatory-ban-on-online-council-meetings/.
 Stacy Clifford Simplican, The Capacity Contract (Minneapolis, MN 2015: University of Minnesota Press).
Elizabeth Evans is Professor in Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London. She was an ISRF Mid-Career Fellow in 2021, working on a project on disability and political representation.