Breaking down barriers: how do we increase disabled representation in the Scottish Parliament?
Around one in five of the population of Scotland has a disability. To translate that into proportionate representation in the Scottish Parliament, it would mean electing 26 disabled MSPs on 6 May.
However, with only around a couple of MSPs with visible disabilities and perhaps a few more with invisible disabilities in previous sessions of the parliament, there may not yet have been 26 disabled MSPs elected in the entire history of the Scottish Parliament.
“I think it’s changing, but as we know through all kind of changes that have happened throughout history, cultural change is very, very slow,” says Ethan Young, civic participation manager at disabilities charity Inclusion Scotland.
“And I think we need more affirmative action alongside that slow burn of cultural change, and really taking away the barriers so that disabled people can organically progress and be represented equally in the Scottish Parliament.”
There are a number of reasons why getting more disabled people elected is important.
“Purely from a democratic point of view, it’s really important that our elected representatives are representative of the society and the communities that we that we live in,” says Young.
“So it’s really important that disabled people see role models, for example, and that non-disabled people also see that disabled people are capable of doing these jobs and doing them very well, and that we’ve got a lot of talent out there that’s an untapped resource.
“It’s really important that we have representation because there is an understanding of the barriers that disabled people face through lived experience, and therefore not utilising that and having disabled people in positions of decision-making, where they’re making the policy rather than disabled people just being the subject of consultation all the time, then we get it wrong, quite frankly.
“We do. It’s like asking a gardener to design a bridge. Why are we designing policies and doing things to disabled people rather than disabled people having the power to do what we need to do?”
This is echoed by Pam Duncan-Glancy, Scottish Labour candidate for Glasgow Kelvin and the party’s social security spokesperson, who is a wheelchair user: “For me, it’s so important for us to address the under-representation of disabled people everywhere, from our high streets, our jobs, all the way to our councils and parliaments and boardrooms, because if we don’t, first of all, I think we’re losing out on the huge innovation that disabled people can bring to solving the problems of the future – and of today.
“But also, I think if we continue just to put the same people in the room, we’re only going to get the same answers – and the same answers aren’t working.
“So we know that, for example, a million people in Scotland are living in poverty, that half the households who are living in poverty have disabled people in them.
“We know that the attainment gap for disabled people is growing more than it is for other people, that we’re less likely to be in employment and we’re grossly underrepresented in positions on boards … and I honestly think if we don’t start to put disabled people in the room where things happen, we’re not going to get the answers that we need, because we’re not going to have that lived experience right at the table where it matters.”
Inclusion Scotland administers the Scottish Government’s Access to Elected Office Fund, which aims to address the additional financial barriers disabled candidates may face, and all five of the main political parties have signed up to Inclusion Scotland’s eight-point Access to Politics Charter to promote more disabled representation.
Some of the key points in the charter are about reducing the barriers to participation in lower levels of politics so that there is more of an “organic wave” of disabled people coming through.
This includes looking at how parties structure their local meetings, making sure there’s accessible options or funding for a BSL interpreter.
“It’s really important that lower levels of parties as part of their internal democracy have that representation there, then hopefully that permeates up the ladder to the point where people are becoming candidates or running for selection,” says Young.
Another area where they are looking for improvement is collection of data: “We want to know the kind of data on how many disabled people ran for selection, how many were successful as candidates, how many just ran at the very beginning to try and pass the each party’s initial vetting system, so that will help us identify the barriers.
“It will also hopefully incentivise parties to get competitive about it as well and think who’s doing better at this, because it’s really important, you know.”
Holyrood asked each of the main political parties how many disabled candidates they are fielding at this election and what they are doing to support more candidates with disabilities to be selected and to get elected.
The SNP has disabled candidates topping four of its eight regional lists and a total of 10 constituency and 14 list candidates with disabilities, with one in five of all the party’s candidates having disabilities.
In the relevant regions, the disabled candidate who finished highest in the ranking of all candidates was put into the number one position.
The party said other steps were taken to encourage more disabled members to come forward for the assessment and selection process, and “the clear message from our conference and from NEC was that we wanted to see more disabled candidates being selected”.
The Conservatives have three candidates who identify as disabled: Eric Holford in the Clydesdale constituency, Jeremy Balfour on the Lothian regional list and John Denerley on the South of Scotland list.
The Scottish Conservatives said they “provide a range of support, training and mentoring for disabled candidates.”
This includes fully accessible application forms, publicity drives to expand the pool of disabled candidates, promoting the Access to Elected Office Fund to candidates, and the Conservative Party disability group, which holds an annual conference as well as a major fringe at party conference and champions disability issues within the party.
Labour says it has a total of 14 candidates who have identified as disabled. This includes 10 constituency and 12 list candidates, with a number standing in both.
To encourage disabled people to stand, it has a Disabled Members Network, which was first established in 2014 to support disabled members within the party.
It has also held a specific disabled members event to encourage disabled members to become councillors and it encouraged disabled members to apply to its Gordon Aikman Leadership Programme, putting a quota in place for underrepresented groups.
The Scottish Greens could not give exact number of disabled candidates, but they have “a few” including Gillian Mackay, who tops the Central Scotland list.
In terms of encouraging disabled candidates, they have promoted the Access to Elected Office fund to their members and the Disabled Greens group is represented on the party’s national executive and its elections and campaigns committee as well as all other national committees, with input into the candidate selection process, the manifesto and the campaign.
The Lib Dems told Holyrood they could not provide data on the number of disabled candidates they have “for data protection reasons”, but said: “Our selection process this time around reserved the top spots in our most winnable seats for disabled people, women or BAME individuals. We also have a diversity fund which supports candidates with training and getting elected.”
The Alba Party has three disabled candidates from its total of 32.
The SNP’s policy of putting disabled candidates at the top of four regional lists is the most high-profile affirmative action at this election, but it is questionable whether that will actually make a difference.
Given that the SNP may not win any list seats, is it mere tokenism, with disabled candidates given some of the least winnable slots?
City of Edinburgh Councillor Derek Howie, who is blind and left the SNP last year because of its lack of support for disabilities, thinks so.
Howie calls it “almost laughable, actually, extremely tokenistic”. He notes that by putting in place women-only shortlists for the constituencies, they are “consciously or unconsciously reducing disability representation” because that excludes all men who have a disability from standing in constituencies.
“I find it very interesting that the SNP has gone, not for disabled-only shortlists in terms of selecting candidates, what they’ve opted for is what looks like positive discrimination in favour of the lists, who’s at the top of the lists, in the full knowledge that in all likelihood [they won’t be elected], because the SNP only got four off the list last time and they’re forecast to get even less this time.”
Howie wants to see more transparent data on disabled representation being released and suggests parties hide behind the defence that they can’t say how many people with disabilities they have elected because of confidentiality around invisible disabilities.
It is a tricky issue. Duncan-Glancy notes that for those with invisible disabilities it can be likened to a process of “coming out” to talk about being disabled.
But Howie suggests that if parties can’t say who, they can still say how many.
“I would say to them, okay, give me the numbers. I’m not interested in who they are, give me the numbers, give me the nature of their disability.
“I don’t particularly want to get into a hierarchy of impairment about lesser disabilities or more serious disabilities, but let’s have the numbers of MPs, MSPs with disability, let’s have the nature of the disability, and then other folk can make up their own minds about that and draw their own conclusions.”