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Time to take the political representation of the disabled seriously








There are around ten million people with a disability in the UK but only a hand full in the House of Commons.

How do we change this? And more to the point, why should we care?

I looked at the issue for this week’s Sunday Politics (44 minutes in), arguing that the dire under-representation of people with disabilities matters on two grounds: symbolic and substantive.

From Phillips, with her work on the theory of representation, to Childs and her investigations into the policy impact of ‘Blair’s Babes’ , there’s been considerable research into the effects of getting more women and people from ethnic minorities into the political arena.

Disability, though, has gone overlooked.

There’s no justification for this. At around 18% of the UK population, ‘the disabled’ are a sizeable marginalised group. Similarly to women, their under-representation in the House of Commons needs tackling – and in fact many of the arguments used to make the case for better gender representation can be used to make the case for disability.

Basic fairness is reason enough. It is patently unfair for white, rich, able-bodied, men to monopolize the political system. Unless we’re to believe that having a disability means a person is less able to take part in the political process, multiple barriers are unfairly keeping disabled people out. Once let in, disabled MPs can ‘stand for’ disabled people in a symbolic sense – their mere presence providing role models for disabled citizens and legitimacy to what, without them, is an exclusionary, unjust political body.

Disabled people’s presence in politics is not only needed for just and fair descriptive representation though, but for their needs to be substantively represented. The idea is simple: disabled people have a distinctive set of perspectives and interests; disabled representatives share these; put disabled representatives in power and they will act on them.

This assumes neither that disabled and non-disabled citizens don’t have shared interests nor that disabled people, as a monolithic faction, don’t have complexities and difference within their group. Just as Phillips argues in The Politics of Presence: The Political Representation of Gender, Ethnicity and Race  when it comes to women, the argument for a more representative governing body does not depend on establishing a unified interest of all disabled people; it depends, rather, on establishing a difference between the interests of the disabled and non-disabled.

People with disabilities do have unique interests, both in terms of the disability elements to mainstream policies and those specifically related to disability. Simply put, a person may be more inclined to care about cuts to disability welfare support if they have at one time in their life applied for a disability benefit.

Disabled people are more likely to live in poverty, have no formal qualifications or be unemployed than people without a disability.  Their needs are not currently being met. Who better to do so than disabled MPs?

As Phillips says, there’s something perverse about a democracy that accepts a responsibility for redressing disadvantage, but doesn’t see the disadvantaged as the appropriate people to carry it through.

Frances Ryan

Published inBritish Politics


  1. Mike Killingworth Mike Killingworth

    According to Ed Miliband, 1 in 4 of the electorate is mentally ill.

    It is an interesting exercise to reread Frances’s article substituting that phrase for “disabled”. Perhaps she could explain to me why it would be inappropriate to do so?

    And I know it’s easy to reach for a stock photo of a wheelchair when discussing disability, but most disabled people aren’t wheelchair users. Indeed, the fact that no stock photo covers all bases – in the way that one of a woman or a black person, mutatis mutandis, would, might also tell Frances something.

    • I agree mental illness needs to be included. There’s a middle ground here. There are actually some unique issues related to non-physical disability and election that shouldn’t be blurred in with physical disability e.g. the difference between ‘hidden’ and ‘visible’ disabilities; arguable added stigma; even (according to the House of Commons information service), legal differences when it comes to discrimination. But there are general issues that are relevant – and I don’t believe people having different disabilities does any harm to the argument for general increased representation.

      What’s really important is that there’s no suggestion that a disabled person is purely a disabled person with no other elements to their identity or that all are the same – or, as you say, there’s a ‘stock photo’ to cover all bases. As I’m about to reply to Diana, I don’t believe there being either differences between a group or within one person’s identity damages the argument for increased representation.

  2. As editor I chose the picture and certainly had a dilemma about choosing the one we used for the reasons you mention.

  3. Mike Killingworth has taken the words out of my mouth.

    “The idea is simple: disabled people have a distinctive set of perspectives and interests; disabled representatives share these; put disabled representatives in power and they will act on them.”

    I don’t think that disabled people do have a distinctive set of perspectives & interests – I am a highly qualified professional woman with a husband, 4 children, a good ill-health retirement pension, now pursing a second career. I happen to have two major psychiatric diagnoses that relapse and remit, and can profoundly disable me at times, and alter my lifestyle at all times. I have no problem with classifying myself disabled, but I have no real understanding of what it must be like to be a woman with the same diagnoses but without the benefit of further/ higher education scrape an existence on benefits, trying to look after my children in difficult circumstances. Even less can I understand the difficulties faced by people with significant physical disabilities.

    I am afraid that the divide between educated and non-educated, living wage and non-living wage, is probably even more of a chasm for the disabled than the able bodied, and the challenges faced by those with physical disabilities are hugely different from those faced by people with mental health disabilities.

    So whilst I applaud the intentions of the writer, I am afraid that I cannot envisage circumstances in which one or two disabled people and/or their representatives could possibly ever speak for all disabled people.

    • Mike Killingworth Mike Killingworth

      Thank you, Diana..

      The other point I forgot to make first time around is that, whilst few if any of us are likely to change gender or ethic origin most of us can expect death to be preceded by a greater or lesser degree of disabilities. As the Bard reminds us, second childishness follows the lean and slippered pantaloon…

    • I agree with much of what you’ve said – as the argument for increased representation of disabled people, vitally, doesn’t suggest that one disabled person is going to share identical interests to another. As I (and the theory) said, ‘This assumes neither that disabled and non-disabled citizens don’t have shared interests nor that disabled people, as a monolithic faction, don’t have complexities and difference within their group.’

      It does suggest two things. One, that a political body that doesn’t have a proportionate number of representation for a marginalised group is exclusionary and therefore unjust. Two, that increasing the representation of marginalised groups increases the odds that issues of particular interest to them will be addressed.

      We don’t have to define our identity by disability or claim that each of our lives or concerns are identical to an another disabled person to accept that there are certain issues relevant to disabled people that are not relevant to non-disabled ones. The question is: will a disabled MP be more willing to address them than the present cohort? I suspect it will be like women. Having a womb is no guarantee you’ll defend the particular interests of women but get enough through the door, and things will naturally sway a little.

  4. jack jack

    Mike and Diana

    I dont understand the argument, representation doesnt have to be absolute, it is the issue, not the identity that matters. We could do the same exercise for any social group, race, class or gender, the differance for example between a Ugandan Refugee, a young unemployed black man, an elderly Jamaican Grandma a Black Premier League Footballer and the Ghanean Ambassader, could any of these people implicitly “understand” each other, probably not, but that doesnt mean the issue of race is irrelevant. Most peoples identities are a mix of differant aspects, differant sets of interests, they dont want a single perfect representative, they want all their aspects / interests represented.

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