By Gordon Aikman, Sarah Anderson, Hannah Bettsworth, Pam Duncan-Glancy, Ryan McMullan, Lorna Murchison, Nicola Ross, Jamie Szymkowiak and Jamie Walker
“I am very pleased and honoured to be elected to the Scottish Parliament but disappointed that so few other disabled people were elected. I think in the next five years all political parties need to see what can be done to encourage more disabled people to stand and get elected. If I can help in that process I will.”
Jeremy Balfour MSP
Scottish Conservative Party, Lothian Region
On May 5th 2016 Scotland cast its votes, electing a fresh selection of yellow, blue, red, green and orange politicians to our parliament. Since then much ink has been spilled about the state of the parties, who is up and who is down. Less attention has been paid to who the 129 rosette-clad individuals are and what experience they bring.
A healthy democracy demands a parliament that reflects all those it seeks to serve. Disability can affect any one of us, in any number of ways, at any time. In Scotland, one in five of us are disabled. While our new parliament may not be devoid of disabled members, it is unfortunately far from representative. So far we know of only one MSP that has defined themselves as disabled, and another who has openly spoken about having a significant impairment. This may prove to be an underestimate if, in time, others choose to share their own experience. Even so, it is clear we have a long way to go – a representative Parliament would have 23 disabled members.
Scotland’s vibrant and vocal disability movement will continue to lobby for change, but nothing compares to having individuals with first-hand experience of the barriers that disable us in the room when decisions are made and policy written.
More disabled people in politics means more who understand our lives and the challenges we face. That in turn means policies that work for everyone – and ultimately a fairer Scotland where we can all reach our potential.
This article puts forward a series of positive, proactive measures, which if implemented as a package, we believe will result in more disabled people being elected to office in 2021. We hope these proposals are something that all political parties can not only agree on, but can work together to deliver. Until we have a parliament that reflects all Scots, we have a job to do.
We call on Scotland’s political parties to reaffirm their commitment to holding their meetings in accessible venues. This is just as important for regular local meetings as it is for launches and conferences. Asking the needs of your members is the only way to ensuring the venue is accessible as considerations beyond the obvious lifts and ramps may be necessary.
LIVE STREAMING / VIDEO OR TELE-CONFERENCING
We ask Scotland’s political parties to be more inclusive by embracing new technologies which offers the ability to live stream events and important meetings. Transport can be inaccessible or too costly, personal assistants might not always be available and crowded or busy spaces can be intimidating or uncomfortable for some. We recognise that in some rural locations, an accessible venue may prove difficult to source. In all of these circumstances, increasing the use of live streaming and other forms of “telepresence” can be a cost effective way of being more inclusive to all members.
The 2016 Scottish Parliament elections witnessed the production of a far greater range of accessible manifestos than ever before. We encourage Scotland’s political parties to ensure future documents are produced earlier in the election campaign period thus allowing disabled people the time required to fully analyse their contents, including postal voters.
Accessible materials should not be limited to election manifestos and we would like to see the progress made in this area extended to other party and government documents.
“People who have learning disabilities too often face lifelong exclusion and lack of opportunity to be part of their community, through work, transport, access or welfare. But their voices are too often not heard by those who represent them. That needs to change and ensuring people who have learning disabilities are empowered to participate in the democratic process as active citizens is a significant part of that change. Timely, accessible, easy read information from political parties and government will make a real difference to people who have learning disabilities who are keen to exercise their democratic right and hold their elected representatives to account post-election. Political parties must think about how they are engaging with potential voters, including those who have learning disabilities. Sometimes it is about thinking differently, but the solution you find works better for everyone.”
Kayleigh Thorpe, Campaigns and Policy Manager
We should not limit accessibility to written formats. Communication through British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters and the use of hearing loops and subtitles will make politics accessible to more people.
We encourage Scotland’s political parties to spot and harvest the talent of their disabled members through the creation or reestablishment of disabled members groups. If developed properly, these groups can contribute to policy creation and will provide a platform for disabled members to gain confidence, leading to increased considerations given to standing for elected office.
As a minimum requirement, we call on each of Scotland’s main political parties to create a position on their National Executive Committee (or equivalent lead managerial body) for a Disability Officer. This will demonstrate to all members that the party leadership is taking positive steps to include disabled members within their party structures. Disabled people face different barriers to other underrepresented groups; it is our view that an Equalities Officer is not sufficient. In Parliament, we would encourage each party to appoint a Disability Spokesperson.
Where possible, we would like to see this filter down to local levels where each constituency party or branch has their own Disability Officer. Consideration should also be given to clearly defining organisational tasks and responsibilities yet ensuring they remain flexible enough to empower individual member ability.
Everyone in Scotland can play their part in reducing the stigma associated to mental ill health. We invite Scotland’s media, politicians, political parties and their members to use positive language when discussing mental health and disability in general.
We recognise that being an elected representative can present unique challenges and, of course, the same can be said for political activism in its entirety. Public speaking, tele-canvassing, speaking to a stranger on the doorstep or entering an on-line debate can be stressful and tiring. We encourage Scotland’s political parties to look at appointing a Mental Health Representative who can champion mental health and help ensure the wellbeing of their party membership. Where possible, we would like to see each constituency party or local branch appoint their own mental health representative. In Parliament, we would encourage each party to appoint a Mental Health Spokesperson.
To record our progress, we need more information on how we are doing now. We encourage Scotland’s political parties to track their number of self-identifying disabled elected representatives including Councillors, MSP’s, MP’s and MEP’s. Parties may want to consider internal equality monitoring forms to ensure their party meets their member’s accessibility requirements.
DISABILITY EQUALITY TRAINING
Given that one in five of the people they represent are disabled, it is imperative that 100% of MSP’s attend Disability Equality Training (Inclusion Scotland is offering specifically tailored training for MSPs). Local authorities should consider similar training for their Councillors.
We call on Scotland’s Parliament and local authorities to consider including gym membership as part of their overall remuneration. It is our view that there is a link between mental health and physical activity. Physical activity allows people to become fitter which can enable people to better deal with issues such as anxiety and depression.
We call on Scotland’s Parliament to provide their Members with the support of a Welfare Officer. This Welfare Officer would not be a member of any party and would provide support and non-political guidance confidentially, without the Member fearing internal party reputation damage. This should be available to both MSPs and parliamentary assistants. We believe having the support of such an individual will go some way to reducing the stigma associated with disability and mental ill health in politics. Parliament may wish to consider annual appointments for all its Members. Local authorities should consider similar support for their Councillors.
“Internships and Apprenticeships specifically created for disabled people should be established in every Scottish Government department, NHS Board and Local Authority. These should be supported through the expert advice on ensuring accessibility and inclusive practice, and peer support for the disabled interns during placement”
Phyl Meyer, Employability and Civic Participation Manager
We live in a Scotland where our aspirations for a better world are not just distant dreams of the disempowered, they are shared by many, from the streets to the benches of our Parliament. Nearly every day we hear public figures declaring that inequality must be addressed and human rights protected. That gives us hope. But hope is not quite enough. The 1 million disabled people in Scotland also need action. It’s time to move from declaration to implementation.
If one in five of our MSPs or local Councillors were disabled people, not only would there be pressure for action, we’d know more about what that action should be.
Initiatives such as the £200,000 Democratic Participation Fund and the Access to Politics Project, suggested by disabled people and set up in recent months are huge steps along our path to that better world. But if we are to see more disabled people returned to Parliament in 2021 or indeed in Councils in 2017, we also need to take the steps we have outlined above. The good news is, we know they will work, we know they are part of the solution to a more representative Parliament and an equal society. How do we know that? Because disabled people themselves have come up with these solutions. What we have set out above is not a random list of suggestions, but a set of concrete actions that lived experience and a bit of political know-how have developed.
Disabled people are innovative by design. We have to be. Just to get from A to B can require a lot of ‘work arounds’! Supporting us to have our say in our country isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s bloomin’ sensible! Our innovation should not be lost. To create a truly equal, prosperous and flourishing Scotland we have to harness the talents we all have and the experience we all bring.
We at One in Five are a group of disabled people who have come together with the common aim of making our politics more representative. Through our collective and disabled people led approach we have achieved so much more than we ever could have alone. That’s why we believe in and embody, through our aims, the disabled people’s mantra; ‘nothing about us without us’. And we ask you the reader to do the same.
This is everyone’s job. We need our political parties, Parliament and their people to work together and act now. Let’s work our socks off so that when we wake up the morning after the 2021 election we switch on our TVs to a sea of disabled talent. We can be the Nation that does it. We can lead the way.