Former Labour MSP Siobhan McMahon on inclusivity for disabled people in politics

Written by Jenni Davidson on 7 April 2016 in Inside Politics

Former MSP and Scottish Labour list candidate on her experience in the Scottish Parliament and barriers to involvement in politics for people with disabilities

Siobhan McMahon, former Labour MSP and Central Scotland list candidate, has hemiplegia, a neuromuscular condition that causes weakness in the right-hand side of her body. Holyrood asked her about her experience in parliament and what she thinks can be done to get more disabled people into politics.

In terms of the parliament itself, there were just a few hitches, for example, a door that was removed to make it easier for her fellow MSP Dennis Robertson, who is blind, caused  an unforeseen difficultly for her because a security point had been moved to another door that she couldn’t open easily because of the weakness in her right arm.

Access to the car park was another issue, because it is very difficult for McMahon to swipe her pass out of the right-hand side of her car, but staff solved this by verbally checking who she was against her number plate.


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A discussion with equalities staff resolved the issue of not being able to put her lectern back down herself after making a speech or asking a question in the chamber. “I’d just basically sit there with it up and nobody could see my face and I couldn’t see them for the rest of the debate.” After that, security staff, “who have been fantastic, frankly” would come and put it down for her.

On the subject of political parties getting more disabled people involved, she believes there needs to be more action. “Parties, and this is all parties, have to pay more than lip service, and I think that’s what they’re doing at the minute. They’re signing up to the One in Five campaign, which is great, but I don’t think there is any group so far that have said how they are going to do that.

“So, for instance, if I just talk about the Labour Party, we’ve signed up to the campaign and yet I’ve just gone through a selection process that didn’t protect anybody with additional needs other than if they were female.

“They talk a good game,” she says, but she doesn’t know what that commitment actually means in practice. “If I don’t know it and I was an MSP, how on earth do ordinary party members know it?” she asks.

“How are we being inclusive to get disabled people along to meetings in the first place?” A lot of meetings take place in buildings you can’t get into with a disability or they have no hearing loops or interpreters, she says. “All this costs money, I accept, but if you’re trying to be inclusive and trying to get the people who represent communities involved in politics then you start at the grassroots. And my own party do very little for that.”

One example she gives is that if she can’t get out to campaign, she is often left to do some phoning, something she doesn’t feel is one of her strengths, whereas she would like to be given a choice about how she is involved.

McMahon also believes disabled people feel under a lot of pressure to push themselves to do as much, or more, than others to prove themselves. “I think that’s why maybe a lot of disabled people don’t feel that they can go through, because they don’t feel that they can give the same amount of hours.

“There is a mindset there that thinks ‘I have to do more than others can do’, which is a shame, and I think that has to be tackled.”

A lot more has to be done in being more proactive and allowing disabled people to come up with their own solutions, McMahon suggests. She thinks the SNP disabled conference was a good idea “but do the disabled people necessarily want their own conference or do they want to be included, for want of a better word, in the mainstream conference? Because issues that affect disabled people affect all of us.

“Yes, it’s a great idea – I’m not having a go at the SNP for doing it, I think it’s great they’ve tried something – but is that the right way to do it or is there a better way? And until other parties start to do similar events, they don’t know what’s going to be good or bad or indifferent.”

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