What inspired you to get involved in politics?
A lot of changes were happening in my village in the early 1980s. At the time, the main source of work and jobs for local people came from Shenley Mental Health Hospital, which also served as the heart of our community. The closure of the hospital had a radical effect on the area, as did the development of over a further one thousand households being built on its grounds.
I felt strongly about the impact of these changes, and my father suggested that in order for me to really help I should stand as a parish councillor. During that time I had a double knee operation and developed M.E., and as a result faced a myriad of difficulties, but I didn’t want to let this stop me. I went on to be elected as a borough councillor for Shenley in 2002.
What do you enjoy about being a councillor?
I enjoy feeling I am making a difference, and believe I have achieved a lot as a local councillor. One thing I have worked on is to make the council accessible to all. For example, in our borough we have three major settlements, which are not connected well by public transport so it can be difficult for residents to come and listen to meetings. We are solving that problem by webcasting, so you can see what we are doing from the comfort of your home. I also think it’s important to train local councillors to be at ease with residents, and to be more available. My Ward is rural and we are lucky to have a village environment, where people will stop me in the street when they see me and tell me their problems. In more urban areas, having talked to other councillors from big city councils, it’s not so easy for people to access you as they don’t know how to get in touch easily.
As a disabled person did you experience particular barriers or challenges and if so, how did you overcome them?
I am very dyslexic, and this seems to be getting worse as I get older so it is becoming more of a challenge. It can take me all day to answer emails and nothing else. It took me a long time to accept that I did need to ask for a bit of help. At first, I tried to hide it and would say ‘Yes, OK’ to writing something and then struggle for hours. Now I am much better at telling people that I prefer to talk than to write. I make light of it, but make clear that I know my limitations.
However, my disabilities and life experiences have given me advantages, too. A positive thing you can bring if you have a disability is that you will have learned to get round things in different ways. Because you’re thinking like that, you’re more open to think in the same way about other problems and can bring these problem-solving techniques to your role as a councillor.
Who or what was most helpful to you in overcoming these challenges?
When I did a university course a few years ago, the county council supported me and gave me Dragon Dictate, which was a real help. With M.E. I’m now getting much better at pacing myself and not trying to do everything when I’m having a good day, as I have learned this will tire me out. I try to organise life so that I’ve got a fairly quiet day before and after a busy day.
Support from my friends has been very important. They all live in the area I’m trying to do something useful for, and they will sometimes come and bring dinner when I am too tired to cook.
It can also be the very small things that make a difference – for example, I have a thing that helps me get in and out of bed more easily and although it is small it makes a really big difference. Now I don’t know how I managed without it!
What tips would you give to other disabled people thinking of standing in elections?
Whether you’ve got a disability or not, be clear about why you want to be a councillor. It’s not always fun, and you have to accept there will be times when you get very frustrated, but equally there are times when you do feel you have made a difference and have improved your community. Do your research and make sure you think it’s something you really want to do.
If support would help you to overcome barriers, think about applying to the Fund. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The worst that can happen is that you will be told ‘no’.
Don’t get disheartened if you don’t get elected the first time. The more you do it, the better you get at it. I would say to anybody, give it a go. It’s definitely worth doing. In my lifetime the view towards disability and the access towards things has improved dramatically and over the years I’ve met some amazing people, with disabilities that are very difficult to live with, who have done some amazing things.
What I’m doing with my life now is not something I thought I’d be able to do. I really thought I would never do anything other than the life I had planned for myself before I developed M.E. and arthritis, but people encouraged me and I did. It’s because of my health issues that I’m doing what I’m doing. The last thing I had thought about was getting involved in politics; I hate public speaking with a vengeance, but I do it because I feel I need to, and it is so worthwhile. When I have a bad day wishing life had gone a different way, I remember that now I have a completely different life that I enjoy just as much. I’m now a Magistrate as well and I love it – it’s very important to me.
I believe very strongly that I’m elected to speak for the community. I may have my own opinions about things but sometimes I have to say the will of the group of people that I’m representing is more important. You’re not there to speak for yourself; you’re there to speak for everybody.
Would the Access to Elected Office Fund be something you would consider using? How might it help you in the election process?
I am moving to a new area soon, where I plan to stand for election. When political parties select their candidates, they expect candidates to be able to go and canvass door to door, which is something that I am not able to do without support. However, because I’ll be new to the area I won’t have the support from friends and neighbours that I have gradually built up where I live now. I would use the Fund to help me with extra costs I would face in canvassing. This would make a big difference to me because it would allow me to meet my party’s internal rules and expectations during the selection process, which will increase my chance of being selected.