What inspired you to get involved in politics?
I was always interested in politics from a young age, as I was part of a political family (political with a small p). We would frequently talk about politics around the dinner table. I was more interested in how politics affected everyday people’s lives, rather than what was happening at Westminster. Part of this was because I was happy running campaigns behind the scenes to part of this was because I just couldn’t imagine how a disabled person could do this kind of role. All of the Councillors I knew spend their time knocking on residents doors, going to meetings in old inaccessible buildings and drinking in old inaccessible pubs!
I became involved in local political activities as a teenager, but it never occurred to me to stand as a candidate. For me, there was a big difference between being political and standing as a candidate. It was only when there was a by-election in my area that the local Councillors asked me to stand because I was somebody really active in the local community. I was given the distinct impression that we were unlikely to win so with some trepidation I agreed.
The campaign was really hard for me, because of being a disabled person I couldn’t do all the door knocking that a non-disabled candidate may have done. I couldn’t deliver hundreds of leaflets, I couldn’t attend meetings in venues riddled with stairs. However, I did have contacts in loads of local groups and a whole army of people [not necessarily all members of my political party] who could help out. I could hand out leaflets outside the local station and at the school gate-and people knew who I was. I could organise my own meetings in disability friendly venues that were better for everybody. My party encouraged me stand as I was really active in the local community and I was delighted to win by a very respectable margin.
As a disabled person did you experience particular barriers or challenges and if so, how did you overcome them?
There are lots of different types of barriers and challenges within the political process. The biggest barriers are actually inside your own head as it never occurs to you that you can be a successful candidate and win an election. Although I experienced barriers in the process, like knocking on doors and attending meetings, I always managed to find ways round it. I was amazed at people’s enthusiasm and willingness to help.
What is it like working in political life?
I absolutely love being a local Councillor. Why? Because of the difference I can make to my local area. From small things like getting a bin next to the station through to a massive traffic calming scheme that has really reduced the number of accidents in our area. Officers in my local authority have been fantastic in making sure that everything is done to meet my access requirements-even a sofa in the Council chamber. Sometimes I do things differently to other Councillors, not so much door knocking but more surgeries, visiting local groups and attending community events. Probably just as many meetings, but in accessible venues. We still haven’t found a good accessible pub but I live in hope.
Who or what was most helpful to you in overcoming these challenges?
Once I had decided to stand as a candidate, I realised that there were lots of disabled people in my party and made connections through MPs’ offices. I also received a lot of support from local activists in my party who offered me practical solutions and always made me feel at ease. For example, they were more than happy to help with my leafleting campaigns, so that I could concentrate on staying in one busy location and speak to different members of the public. I also found local residents and offices in the local Council very supportive.
What top tips would you give to other disabled people thinking of standing in elections?
Do it! Don’t hesitate to consider yourself as a candidate. Never assume that your impairment will be an issue, and never worry that your contribution will not be valued.
How can we get more disabled people into political life?
We need to encourage more disabled people to become Councillors and we need to understand that sometimes as disabled people we cannot do exactly the same activities as some nondisabled colleagues, but we can do other things of equal value. The infrastructure and the adjustments need to be there but most of all we need political parties and Councillor colleagues to understand the benefits of having some people around who sometimes do things differently.