Pam Duncan-Glancy: 'If not me, who?'
Pam Duncan-Glancy took on the most challenging, all-consuming role of her career when she entered the Scottish Parliament as a list member for Glasgow last year, but she was just a teenager when she entered the world of work for the very first time. Not, she says, when we meet in her home in Strathbungo, a trendy enclave in Glasgow’s south side, that her life as a career girl had the most auspicious of starts.
“I applied for a job answering phones in the local taxi office, but they told me there wasn’t actually a job going any more,” she recalls. “When I told my mum she went along the next day to apply herself, and she got the job. When she started on the Monday, she took me with her. They asked what was going on and she said, ‘we’re going to job share’. I loved it and my mum did that job for years after I left.”
Looking back, Duncan-Glancy knows she was initially rejected for the position because she was in a wheelchair, but she doesn’t know – and never asked – if it was because the employers felt they couldn’t accommodate someone with a disability or whether they thought her disability would somehow prevent her from doing the job.
Either way, her mum’s decisive action proved that neither scenario was actually the case and Duncan-Glancy says the people running the taxi business became firm family friends. Yet while the experience taught everyone involved a valuable positive lesson, it also highlighted a negative one to Duncan-Glancy: “I learned quickly that that was another barrier disabled people would face.”
The Duncan family had been facing barriers ever since Pam was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis when she was 18 months old. At that time her baby sister Jen was a swaddled five months. Though the girls’ mum Jacqui was from London and dad Jim from Glasgow, the family had settled in the Moray village of Mosstodloch prior to the children coming along.
Like most places, Moray in the 1980s was hardly a beacon of accessibility and Duncan-Glancy’s parents had to fight to keep the sisters together once they started school. They attended three primary schools and one high school in all and at each one the Duncans insisted ramps were built so Pam could access the building just the same as Jen, and that assistance was provided so Pam had the same opportunities to learn as everybody else.
“I had a really good experience of mainstream school,” Duncan-Glancy, who passed her Highers with flying colours and got an unconditional offer to study psychology at the University of Stirling at the end of her fifth year, says. “Now, too much is about putting people in mainstream schools but not giving them support and that sets them up to fail. I got support and could do anything I wanted.”
Doing what she wanted proved easier said than done when what she wanted was to move to Stirling to take up her place at university. Duncan-Glancy’s arthritis had burnt itself out by the time she was 13 and has been in remission ever since, but by her teenage years the damage to her joints had been done and she not only needed a wheelchair to get about but 24-hour care too. The barriers to accessing that were so high that her university career had to be put on hold.
“I had the grades I needed in fifth year and had an unconditional offer from Stirling but social work in Moray and Stirling took far too long to sort out a care package, so I had to defer my place,” she says.
“I got 24-hour care – my mum and sister had been doing it, but I was moving away and wasn’t going to have them. Social work were offering to come and put me to bed at 8.30 at night – I was a student, they should have been offering to come at 8.30 in the morning to check if I was still up – and at one point said they would measure what I took in in fluids and what I peed out to work out when someone needed to come and take me to the toilet. That wasn’t acceptable so I knocked back the offer. It wasn’t until I got a student social worker, who came in and hadn’t had any of the institutionalism so saw the situation for what it was, that they put together a care plan based on what I needed rather than what they could fund.”
It was a set-back the young Duncan-Glancy hadn’t reckoned on, but one that ultimately led to her political awakening. Told by her mum to either get a job or go back to school for another year she chose the latter and, during a crash course in modern studies, came up against a concept that didn’t just challenge her entire world view but also sent her on her journey into Labour Party membership and activism.
Duncan-Glancy with Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar | Credit: Alamy
“My mum was very much of the view that ‘you can’t stay here and do nothing – you can defer your course, but you need to go back to school or get a job’,” Duncan-Glancy recalls. “I did modern studies and one of the questions in class was ‘what do you think of positive action?’. I said I’d prefer to get a job on merit but when I went home and told my mum what happened she said, ‘you’ve got a lot to learn’. She said, ‘you’re going to face a lot of disadvantage and you will have to take every advantage you can get’. I realised that society was defaulting to inequality, and we would have to fix that by design. That’s when I started to take an interest in inequality and power.”
It took two years for Duncan-Glancy’s care package to be put in place, but when, in 2000, she eventually made it to university after the extra year at school and the year job-sharing with her mum she threw herself into politics almost immediately. She was elected welfare officer on the university’s student association and became the first disabled person to be elected to the National Union of Students’ Scottish executive committee.
Post-university, she had her heart set on a health psychology PhD but then got so involved in the policy work she had been doing part time that she chose to focus on that instead. She felt she “always wanted to speak or try to change things for groups of people and naturally fell into a representative role”. She joined the Labour Party at about the same time.
“At the time I was benefitting hugely from a Westminster Labour government, and I could see the difference they were making in people’s lives,” she reflects. “I could see the values of social justice, equality and human rights aligned with mine and I was a huge fan of [then under-secretary of state for disabled people] Anne McGuire and the work she did on improving the life choices of disabled people.
“Then the Labour Party introduced the Human Rights Act and signed the UK up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which I was fully in support of. The party took me under their wing. I was against the war in Iraq – I marched against it, and I stand by that – but I could discuss the future of benefits and support for disabled people with Anne, who saw disabled people as a group of people who had a right and a desire to work. I’ve seen the good work started by the Labour government bastardised and turned into something torturous [by the current government, which has progressively cut a range of benefits], which is a real shame because the potential was great. I hope that Labour in government look back to that and finish the job.”
Duncan-Glancy hopes to be able to do as much good for disabled people in Scotland as McGuire did across the UK after earlier this year introducing a members’ bill aimed at helping disabled youngsters live full and independent adult lives – something that earned her the title of Political Hero of the Year at Holyrood’s recent Political Awards.
The Disabled Children and Young People (Transitions to Adulthood) Bill wants to improve opportunities for disabled youngsters between the ages of 18 and 26 and, if enacted, would require the Scottish Government to appoint a minister with specific responsibility for government strategy while local authorities would have to come up with tailored plans for every young person affected.
By being in parliament and having the ability to lodge the bill, Duncan-Glancy has shown that what it proposes can be achieved. The enormity of that, and what receiving the right kind of support has enabled her to do in her life, has not been lost on her – as she wrote on Twitter on the day it was introduced: “Today I did something the young me never dreamt I’d have the chance to do – I *lodged a new bill*, *in my name*; the Disabled Children & Young Peoples Transition to Adulthood Bill. If it passes, it will give young disabled people in Scotland a #FightingChance at a future.”
Duncan-Glancy is also hopeful, given how both Labour and the Tories have been polling in recent weeks, that it won’t be long until Labour is back in power at Westminster so it can introduce similar laws and reinstate a system that recognises that for so many people like her benefits provide the route into, not out of, education and work.
She concedes, though, that nothing can be taken for granted, particularly given how much some people have become disenfranchised from politics and governance in recent years.
“I gave a talk at a school recently and one of the questions was about whether that generation of people will vote,” she says. “I said, ‘I’ll be honest, as a group of people who have never lived through anything but the toxicity we have now, I can understand how you feel powerless, but it wasn’t always like that’. It’s no coincidence that when we were in power it didn’t feel this bad.
“I’m not saying we didn’t make mistakes – every party does – but ultimately it wasn’t like this. We had a Labour government in Westminster, a Liberal-Labour one in Scotland and many Labour councils too. Slowly we’ve seen that change in Scotland, Westminster and then in Glasgow. I hope that we can tap into the collective memory of people who can remember and encourage people who can’t remember to put their trust and faith in us again.”
As well as leading her to the Labour Party, policy work also brought Duncan-Glancy together with her now husband Hugh, who was a board member at the Glasgow Centre for Inclusive Living when she began working there as an independent living adviser in 2004.
Her manager put the two of them to work on a project together and she fell instantly in love. Though she jokes that it took several years for the feelings to be reciprocated, she and Hugh have been married since 2014 and, despite complaining that he might get more attention from his wife if he changed his name to The Labour Party, Glancy is a staunch supporter of Duncan-Glancy’s political career, even playing along when she does things like book a weekend in London only to ‘surprise’ him with an off-the-cuff visit to the Labour Party conference in Brighton.
“He’s a political widower,” Duncan-Glancy admits. “It does take over your life, your entire life, it’s impossible to escape. I knew it would be like that and I signed up to it and so did Hugh, but you and your family need to be all in, you can’t do it half-heartedly. He’s always been really supportive, but also people know that I come as a family unit. Sometimes we share personal assistants [Hugh is also a wheelchair user] so we need to be in the same place at the same time.”
Family is hugely important to Duncan-Glancy, and Jen, who works for ScotRail, lives next door to her, with the closeness that flourished when the sisters were able to spend their schooldays together continuing into adulthood.
Duncan-Glancy, who is almost as pleased that her neighbour on the other side is a pub, will be maid of honour when Jen gets married in Maryhill next year. Though their mum died in 2011 and their dad in 2020, Duncan-Glancy’s parents remain ever-present figures in her life, with her mother’s influence in particular shaping the ambitious, driven person she has become.
“She fought for everything she could, and she taught me to do the same,” she says. “I used to be in a lot of pain at school and they’d phone her to say I was crying, and she’d say ‘give her a paracetamol and send her back to class’. It sounds cruel but the alternative is you don’t get an education.”
As role models go, Jacqui Duncan is pretty hard to beat, but Duncan-Glancy has heroes in the political sphere too, chief among them being Anne McGuire, who in addition to her disabilities role in government represented Stirling until losing her seat in the SNP wipe-out of 2015. Baroness Jane Campbell, a disability rights campaigner and cross-bench peer, is up there too.
“Anne McGuire is a hero because of the way she navigated the two jobs she had, one in government and one as a representative for her constituency,” Duncan-Glancy explains. “It’s part of the same job but ultimately managing those two big, big responsibilities, doing it well and representing people in the region is hard work. She did that incredibly well and had so much respect in the local area.
“We [the Labour Party] don’t have the same iron discipline that the SNP do, and I like the fact that we can hold each other to account. I remember what Anne’s constituency Labour party was like – she always listened and took on board what people said to her. She was also kind and thoughtful, well respected by family and friends.
“Jane Campbell is a disabled woman who has been in the House of Lords for a number of years, and she’s changed the law several times, including for her to have the support she needs to be there. She’s an inspiration, she’s never been scared to tell truth to power. She did that, and I’m happy to do that any time I can.”
Duncan-Glancy with Tony at the Holyrood Dog of the Year 2022 | Credit: Alamy
The importance of heroes – political, disabled or otherwise – was brought home to Duncan-Glancy on the day she was sworn in at Holyrood. Clydebank Central councillor Clare Steel tweeted a video of her daughter Katie, also a wheelchair user, watching the ceremony online, writing that “she heard sniffing noises and thought [Katie] was crying” but then realised her daughter was actually watching Duncan-Glancy taking her oath “over and over”. “This is what it means to be a young disabled woman look[ing] up to another disabled woman achieving her dreams,” she wrote.
In the video a beaming Katie tells her mum she loves Duncan-Glancy; in her response Duncan-Glancy wrote she was “greetin’” at the sight, and told Katie that showing disabled people everywhere what they can achieve “is exactly why I’m doing this”.
“I would have loved to have been able to look at parliament and see someone who looked like me when I was younger,” she says. “You can’t substitute being in the room when things are happening.
“People ask what difference I’ve made to disabled people being there. I don’t claim to have made any difference yet […] but it’s much harder to do things that are damaging to disabled people if you consider them one of you. I’m unapologetic about raising disabled issues every chance I can – if not me, who? It’s a great honour to represent Glasgow – I love the people and the city and what it stands for – and it’s incumbent on all of us to represent everyone.”