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Disabling Barriers: A Look at Disability in Welsh Politics – Sam Hobby

8 Apr 2022

My name is Sam Hobby. I’m 23 years old and I’ve recently graduated university with a degree in media and communication and I’m currently doing a 3-month internship with Swansea MAD as the communications support officer. I have Cerebral Palsy which means I use a combination of a wheelchair and crutches to get around. My main interests are in film and television as well as playing wheelchair basketball and being a dyed in the wool Swansea City supporter (for my sins!).

The thing I want to talk about in this piece is the representation of disabled people within politics. I have previously written about representation regarding physically disabled people within Hollywood Cinema during my time at university and being a disabled person myself it is something that I care about and have an interest in.

The latest Family Resources Survey Report from 2020-2021 states that the number of working age adults in the UK who reported a disability has increased by 2% between 2019 and 2021. The report suggests that this increase could be due to restricted movement outside of the home. It also shows that Wales has one of the highest rates for people with a disability in terms of regions within the UK coming in at 28%, this is 6% over the national average. A report by the Senedd themselves concluded that 5% of their entire workforce has a disability. 5% is an admirable number and it is a positive thing that many disabled people have been able to find work however, this does not consider purely the people who are members of the Senedd. A report looking into the diversity of the Sixth Senedd says that ‘there has consistently been a lack of visible diversity in terms of ethnicity and disability’. This seems to indicate that people with visible disabilities are less represented which looks to be the case in the main Senedd too. MS for North Wales Mark Isherwood stated in an article by Rhyl, Prestatyn & Abergele Journal as recently as December 2021, that in its 23 years of existence the Senedd still had not had a member who is a wheelchair user. He also stresses the need for more people with disabilities to stand in the upcoming Senedd elections. Just over 40% of working age adults in the UK have a mobility related disability so it is vital that they receive more representation politically.

Notably, Isherwood also says that the Welsh Government have needed to be reminded that barriers do exist for disabled people and that inaccessibility is a result of a failure to include lived experience when considering these things. A UK government ‘Barriers to Elected Office for Disabled People’ report (Quoted by Isherwood in the article) reveals that disabled people are generally underrepresented across all areas of Britain in politics and that there are several barriers in the way for disabled people when entering into politics. Some of these barriers include things such as venue access and inaccessible materials which are mentioned not only in the report but also by this article from 2018: Stereotyping ‘blocks’ disabled people from politics in Wales – BBC News. As the barriers report says directly “lack of support from political parties to tackle barriers” is also an issue facing disabled people interested in entering into the political world. The fact that there are people within politics that aren’t interested in helping disabled people to contribute seems antithetical to the whole function of democracy. It stands to reason that the way to achieve a more even society is to include those that it is not built for in the decision making.

There are some positives regarding disability representation within Welsh politics though with the Access to Elected Office Fund being launched on a pilot scheme in February 2021. According to the Welsh Government website this fund exists to allow disabled people to participate in the political process by giving them access to all of the things that will help them overcome the barriers mentioned above. Included in the fund is access to assistive aids, equipment and software, adaptations to that equipment as well as training for specialist software and equipment. Also included is travel around the constituency for people who struggle with public transport and communications support personnel such as BSL interpreters, Palantypists, and lip readers. The second part of the pilot scheme was launched in October 2021 with the aim of supporting people in the upcoming local election.

Earlier I referred to Mark Isherwood saying that the Senedd had not had a member who was in a wheelchair, however, that statement was not wholly true. Days before that Ty Hafan announced on their website that Seth Burke from Dinas Powys would be a member of The Welsh Youth Parliament. Seth who is 13 years old, uses a wheelchair due to having Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and has officially become the first person using a wheelchair to be sworn into the Senedd. While speaking to Ty Hafan, Seth has admitted to his own surprise that he was the first member using a wheelchair to take a seat in the Welsh Senedd since it began and wants to help raise the profile of disabled people.

I have discussed the importance of representation regarding disability through a media focused lens in the past, looking at characters and stereotypes and how the depiction of people with disabilities can be a powerful force and I believe that the same thing applies to job roles. When people see somebody in a wheelchair or wearing hearing aids in an aspirational position it knocks over a barrier and allows them to believe that it is possible for them to reach those same goals. It also helps to normalise the use of assistive equipment such as a wheelchair or crutches. When people see these things being used regularly by people in political positions it communicates the message that these things aren’t weaknesses and should not be seen in such a way.

It seems that there is still some way to go when it comes to those with disabilities participating in politics with many physical and societal barriers still making it difficult. There is cause for some optimism with the Access to Elected Office Fund being set up to at least make the process of joining democracy easier for disabled people. Seth Burke joining The Welsh Youth Parliament and becoming the first wheelchair user to take a seat in the Senedd is of equal importance as it proves that the barriers that hold people back can be overcome and that participation in all facets of life for disabled people can be achieved.

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