Disability in the Commons: Who are the Disabled MPs and Why Do They Matter?

Westminster station tube sign

Theresa May’s vanity election in June 2017 gave no Tory majority, which made many rejoice–the disabled among them. It also gave us five disabled MPs. Two Conversatives, one Liberal Democrat, and two Labour MPs. This is still less than 1% of the total number of MPs, and doesn’t come close to representing the general voting population–with with an estimated 16% of working age people and 45% of people above pension age in the UK having a disability. But it is more than ever before, and that is a step in the right direction.

Who They Are

Robert Halfon (Con) – Harlow – cerebral palsy and osteoarthritis 

Paul Maynard (Con) – Blackpool North and Cleveleys – cerebral palsy

Stephen Lloyd (Lib) – Eastborne – deaf 

Marsha de Cordova (Lab) – Battersea – partially sighted 

Jared O’Mara (Lab) – Sheffield, Hallam – cerebral palsy

The Accessibility of Parliament

The Houses of Parliament are some of the  few heritage buildings that aren’t taking the old ‘but, but, but, the building is old’ line when it comes to meeting the accessibility requirements in the Equality Act (2010). Reasonable adjustments are the name of the game, and Parliament has an incredibly comprehensive access statement available on their website.

Parliament also contains a lift–which the Queen used for the first time on a recent visit (fun fact: she and Prince Philip ended up on the wrong floor twice, eventually returned to the ground floor, and then took the stairs). However, the route to the lift is longer than the route to the stairs, and this could present problems to non-wheelchair users who experience pain or other mobility difficulties.

“For MPs who cannot stand for long periods of time, the chamber presents a challenge.”

Whilst getting into Parliament is relatively straightforward, however, sitting in the chamber can be a challenge. There are 650 MPs, but nowhere near as many seats, and whilst this could have been changed back in the 1940s when the chamber was rebuilt following the Blitz, designer Giles Gilbert Scott retained the original, smaller, design which only houses 427 seats. For MPs who cannot stand for long periods of time, this presents a challenge, as Jared O’Mara found when he had to miss parliamentary debates because there were no available seats.

Why Disabled MPs Matter

You might assume that having disabled MPs is important because they’re more likely to vote in favour of disability rights which are so often forgotten, even by the left. But the returning MPs don’t actually have the best voting records when it comes to key disability issues such as NHS and benefit reforms, with the Conservative MPs opting to vote with their party rather than for their disabled constituents. Whether this is because they see themselves first and foremost as a Tory, rather than as disabled, or whether it’s because they don’t actually care about ordinary disabled people now that they’ve reached the top, who can say?

“Both de Cordova and O’Mara are known for their vocal pro-disability rights campaigning.”

Thankfully, the new Labour MPs show promise. While we’ve yet to see how they’ll actually vote, both de Cordova and O’Mara are known for their vocal pro-disability rights campaigning. de Cordova, who is also a woman of colour, has previously worked for many blindness charities prior to running. O’Mara, who unseated former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, was an active campaigner for disability issues while at university, and he is on the board of Paces, a school and community service provider for those with cerebral palsy.

Representation is Key

Having disabled MPs is about more than just having MPs that are more likely to care about disability rights, however. At the end of the day, having more disabled people in the House of Commons is a win for representation. If the five disabled MPs can inspire even one more disabled person to get involved in politics or consider running for Parliament, that can only be a good thing. As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see–so visibility should always be considered an important victory.

There is, of course, more work to be done. But these five disabled MPs are a start–and they’re a start that transcends party lines and proves that disability doesn’t have to be an absolute barrier.

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