As a conductive educator and chronically ill person I was always involved in current issues regarding the disabled community. As I got more and more involved with politics and public matters, I started wondering: how many disabled politicians are there? Who is representing our community?
If we try to look at some statistics about this topic, most of the time we can only find estimations and descriptions like “a handful”, “a few” or just the fact that disability is underrepresented in politics. One of the few exact statistics we can find online is about the UK where less than one percent of the MPs are disabled. We can see the same proportion in the US, where six members (cca. one percent) of the Congress are disabled. While – according to the WHO – more than 1 billion people have some kind of disability, which is approximately 13 percent of the world population.
Why do we need disabled politicians?
Nowadays many political discussions focus on equality, diversity, representation and issues of marginalized groups such as women or people of color. Although there is a growing number of female politicians, disabled people are still underrepresented in this area all around the world.
Besides the obvious issue of adequate representation and equal opportunities, we need more disabled politicians to raise awareness. We often treat disabilities as a taboo, thinking if we don’t talk about it, it won’t be an issue. But people living with disabilities have to face struggles every day because of this attitude. More representation would not only mean more discussion about current issues, but talking about the everyday challenges of disabled people, not just the topic of accessibility – although it is a crucial problem, but not the only one. Not to mention discrimination and actual issues like Donald Trump mocking a disabled reporter at a rally.
What challenges do disabled politicians face?
There are several challenges people living with a disability face day-to-day, politicians are not an exception. Starting with the most general ones, like negative stereotypes and stigmas. Many see disabilities as a sign of weakness, incompetence, which can be exceptionally challenging in the world of politics, where power and strength are basic values.
A political campaign or career also has its specific challenges for a disabled person. One of the many issues is accessibility: many buildings and venues don’t have ramps or lifts, so wheelchair-users are very much at a disadvantage. Just like politicians with hearing or speaking impairment who can’t campaign in the traditional, regular way.
Lastly, we can’t forget about disadvantages disabled people usually face during their education. It’s not only harder for them to get the right qualifications because of accessibility issues, but the political community can also be quite discriminative and exclusive, because they fear that disabled people will set back their campaign.
How can we help?
One of the main struggles disabled politicians must face is the lack of funding. They have extra expenses, like a sign interpreter, personal assistant or transportation, which many of them couldn’t afford without proper support. Another thing political parties should consider is to support accessible campaigns. For example, producing easy-to-read materials or choosing physically accessible locations could not only benefit the disabled politicians, but also the disabled public.
Another quick, temporary solution could be disability quotas, which can mean reserved seats, candidate quotas or political party quotas. Gender quotas have been used around the world, but disability quotas are relatively new and very few. It brings up the controversy about whether positive discrimination is equitable or not. But I think if we use it temporarily, it opens the world of politics for the disabled much faster than any other solution.
A good example: Uganda
If we ask anyone “which country do you think has the highest number of disabled politicians?”, the most likely answers would be a first world country like the UK, Switzerland or a Nordic country. But the right answer is Uganda, where in 2015, there were 47.000 disabled representatives in politics. This number is truly outstanding if we compare it to America where there are only six disabled people in Congress. How did a third-world country achieve a result like this?
There are obvious reasons for higher disability representation in Uganda, like landmines or the number of civil wars in the last decades, which both increases the disabled population of the country. But in addition Uganda has very strict rules which ensure fair representation of marginalized groups on all government bodies. Not only the Parliament has reserved seats for the disabled, but also every district, village, parish and sub-county has to include one man and one woman with some kind of disability.
These actions had a general positive impact on the country’s political life: since 2008 parliamentarians with disabilities have also been elected through the mainstream electoral process, not just with the help of quotas and reserved seats. In the last decade many African countries tried to follow Uganda’s footsteps, like Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, South Sudan, and Swaziland and sent delegations to learn more about the issue and solution of disability representation in politics. Since then only Kenya adopted a similar provision in 2011, but there the political party chooses the representatives with disabilities.
As we can see from Uganda’s example, it’s not impossible to support disabled politicians. With vocation, persistence and strict rules every country could ensure fair representation for marginalized groups on all government bodies.