What inspired you to get involved in politics?
I was married at the age of 20 and moved to the North East, which was a totally new area and way of life for me. It was amazing how people didn’t realise, but politics was a huge part of their conversation and daily life, with such extreme views within the same working class community.
At times life has been a struggle and I went through the experience of losing my own home to living on a notorious estate in a significantly deprived area where drug dealing was the norm. It was accepted that people sold on their spare keys when they moved out for the new tenant to be burgled when they moved in. This happened to my family and it initially made me really angry, but then I asked the question of how can this cycle stop? I spoke to the doctors and persuaded them to hold a rehab programme whilst I started up a neighbourhood group.
I have two children, who are now 18 and 19 years old, both of whom have been diagnosed with Foetal Anticonvulsant Syndrome. As a part of having to fight both the education and health sectors on their behalves, I came to be more aware of how politics affects everyone’s life and subsequently became more involved. Before this time my only awareness was MPs at Westminster.
I then moved with my family back home to Lancashire and joined the Parish Council. I was asked to represent parents on Chorley Council’s equality and diversity forum, which led to me becoming a school governor. People kept asking me why don’t you stand for election but I didn’t think this was possible, not only due to my own disability but because I haven’t been to university. Today I’m a locally elected Borough Councillor.
What is the reality for disabled people working as politicians?
Public transport is not always accessible to me and is one of my main obstacles because of the lack of service in the area I live. Not being able to drive due to my epilepsy means that I’m reliant on family to take me to meetings. My epilepsy affects my memory, which means keeping track of commitments and what has been said at meetings very difficult.
I have experienced a lack of understanding from others within all sectors. There are also things such as inaccessible buildings and the need to be accompanied as often as possible whilst my seizures are uncontrolled. It can sometimes be difficult to grasp an understanding of what government decisions mean in practise and I would like more training in this. However, the courses tend to be in Southern England, so with my disabilities I am unable to access them without substantial additional cost.
When people speak about my disability I used to just say I’m ok, but now I’m honest and say having spina bifida can be a nightmare. I have learnt to be more open about how thing affect me, such as chairs being too uncomfortable to sit on, not going to meetings too early due to my epilepsy, continuing to speak even if my speech is slurred or not trying to hide my partial seizures.
How has the Access to Elected Office for Disabled People Fund helped you in the election process?
Finance is a big reason why I had to consider carefully whether to stand for election again. For each journey I make I have additional transport costs with my husband taking me, going home then coming back four or more hours later. I need support from someone for ward walks, attending parish council, visiting schools, community groups and meeting residents. I deliver a newsletter four times a year to every house in each village in my ward. I have to pay someone to do this as there is no way I could do this myself and without there would be no communication with residents.
The Access to Elected Office Fund is a lifeline to me as it will enable me to fund a support worker to accompany and support me when I go out canvassing in my ward and meeting residents and community groups. It will also enable me to have a handheld portable device that will assist hugely with my memory loss, enabling me to take notes of what residents want, and issues identified. Without the fund I wouldn’t be a candidate in the true sense, just a name on a piece of paper. I wouldn’t be able to get out and show people even though I have a disability it isn’t there to stop me or you. I have decided to stand for 2014 election but only due to the support offered by the Access to Elected Office Fund.
How can candidate offices use the Access to Elected Office fund to attract more disabled candidates and diversify the often ‘closed’ world of local and national politics?
Political parties could do more to promote the fund and demonstrate that there is support there for disabled candidates. Many people think that don’t have the skills to be a politician but life experience is all you need. Colleges would be a good place to start as young people are starting to mature and, even though they may be unable to vote until 18, they can stand for election in their 17th year. For this to work, you need to be seen as a person with a disability not a disabled person. Maybe the council could place a leaflet in every voting register as this goes to every household.
What advice would you give to other disabled people who want to play a role in politics?
I would say that you need to consider what sort of time you can give to the role as it is time consuming and hard work. Make sure you have the support you need at home and speak to the council to see if they are able to assist you if you are elected in your new role and can make any adaptations needed.
I would contact my own local councillor and ask if I could shadow them on a couple of occasions to get a feel of what the role is like. You can also attend local council meetings as they’re open to members of the public with agendas available beforehand on the council’s website.