This is an article which was originally published in the Big Issue in Scotland, a few weeks following the independence referendum on September 18th 2014
Democracy for all – disabled people in politics
“I am very disappointed that there has not been more progress in getting more disabled people active in public and elected to our councils and parliaments. Parliament can only do its job effectively if the people elected to it truly represent all our people.” – Dame Anne Begg MP
The other week we had the culmination of a two year long build-up to the greatest engagement of people and society in politics in Scottish history. The result may now be decided, but much of that energy is here to stay. The will for positive change is palpable in the air, folk do not want to just go back to business as usual. As a society we have the opportunity to use that energy and engagement and it is important that we take everyone with us.
I’m not talking about reconciliation between Yes and No voters, although that must come too – but about including the under-represented in our society. One in five people have an impairment or long term health condition and are disabled by society in various ways. Yet only two MSPs in the Scottish Parliament have openly identify themselves as disabled – a representative Parliament would have at least twenty five disabled MSPs. At Westminster the story is similar – in theory there should be at least a hundred MPs defining as disabled, in fact the figure is closer to ten. Inclusion Scotland’s latest project seeks to tackle this issue.
This year we launched a pilot project to place disabled interns (who are paid the Living Wage) into the offices of MSPs at the Scottish Parliament. The aims are simple – give disabled people the chance to get some really good experience in the political field and show what they can do. At the same time these interns raise the profile and awareness of disabled people within the Parliament so that the decision makers know first-hand that it is possible to include everyone – and become more aware of barriers to inclusion. Work is coming along nicely. Catriona Johnson, pictured below, is shown here taking a day out of her duties as a parliamentary intern to shadow the Chamber Clerk during a debate on Scotland’s future.
Six more interns are being placed by our pilot this year, which has been led within Parliament by James Dornan MSP and funded by Scottish Government. Given its success so far, we are hopeful that the scheme will continue beyond this year.
While we are playing an important role through the intern scheme, more has to be done in society and politics. The most important change needs to happen within our communities. Right now people are more politically engaged than they have been in generations and we need to make the most of this. Reports are circulating of huge membership surges for political parties and campaign groups in the aftermath of the Referendum. But the onus is now on those groups to ensure that their activities, their conversations about the future and their events are as accessible and inclusive as possible to disabled people. This is not as hard as many imagine. Often it can be as simple as setting up ground rules for speaking clearly for lip readers, providing material in advance of events in suitable formats for visually impaired people, and ensuring that venues are accessible.
Advice is available online, you could ask your local Access Panel, or better yet reach out to disabled members and ask them what they need to be included.
Scotland’s future belongs to us all.