‘What message does it send to future Disabled leaders!?’ is a question Sophie Morgan, TV presenter and #rightsonflights campaigner, posed on Instagram where upon arrival, she found 10 Downing Street was inaccessible to wheelchair users. How can we tackle issues (that often hit people with disabilities the hardest) if political institutions, and the mechanisms with which to have a voice and create change, are themselves inaccessible?

I believe there are three areas that need to be tackled to facilitate increased participation of disabled people in politics: parliament, intersectional activism, and disability activism. I am speaking here from my own experiences and challenges with the chronic illness ME/CFS. It is important to note that disability is complex and diverse and each individual will have their own priorities and approaches to breaking down barriers.


When recent issues in our society, such as the Covid pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, have affected and continue to affect disabled people in a disproportionate manner, having representatives with lived experience of disability in the decision-making process is crucial.

There are 650 MPs in the House of Commons of which only five have declared a disability. This places the proportion of disabled MPs at 1 in 130. In the UK, 1 in 5 people have a disability. In Holyrood there is only 1 MSP who has declared a disability and, only recently, MSP John Swinney admitted in the Covid inquiry that the Scottish Parliament did not factor disabilities into their emergency planning. Nearly 6 in 10 of the people who died during the Covid pandemic were disabled. It is evidently critical that governments consider the impact of their policies on those who are disabled.

Not only is there a lack of disabled representatives in Parliament but there are many barriers to physical access within the Palace of Westminster itself. Only 12 per cent of the building is accessible to wheelchair users and there is only 1 working lift. The recently revived Restoration and Renewal Programme for the Palace of Westminster intends to increase accessibility around the building. Currently, MPs who are wheelchair users are unable to use the back benches or sit in the despatch box. The plan hopes to change this and improve general accessibility throughout the building.

There is little information regarding the number of disabled members in the House of Lords but it is thought to be higher than in the Commons. There are four designated wheelchair spaces in the Lords an improvement on the Commons. However, there remains a cap on the number of wheelchair users accommodated in the chamber at any one time. In my view, the greatest accessibility achievement of the Lords is their acceptance of hybrid working. The Covid pandemic showed many positive attributes of virtual working, especially for people with disabilities. Whilst the Commons returned to physical settings only, the Lords has retained virtual participation in debates thus allowing those with disabilities to attend virtually. This flexibility should be adopted throughout politics — all the way from the grassroots to the Cabinet — to enable more widespread participation by disabled people in all areas of political life.

Intersectional Activism

Since I became disabled, and largely housebound, attending a political protest has not been a realistic prospect. During LGBTQ+Pride month I saw a proliferation of Instagram posts from disabled creators about how Pride celebrations were inaccessible to them.

Disability representation in intersectional activism is crucial. There is often the perception that you can only be part of one marginalised group. This means that issues arising outside of the primary activist group may not be addressed. This leaves disabled people, voices and issues excluded from non-disability-focused activism.

There are a variety of ways that intersectional activism, especially rallying and marching, can become more accessible. Liberty Human Rights has compiled a list of ways to organise a more accessible protest. This includes having rest areas, BSL interpreters, pandemic safety measures, accessible toilets and parking, limiting sensory stimulating activities, and providing information about the length and condition of the route. If you are planning on organising a gathering or protest, assume that disabled people will also want to attend and make the appropriate accommodations.

Disability Activism

July was Disability Pride Month with physical parades taking place since 1990. Such parades are important but, for me, attending mass demonstrations in their current form would be difficult as I would struggle with energy and pain travelling to and attending demonstrations — not to mention the PEM I would suffer following such an event. Noise and crowds would be overstimulating and painful. I’d also potentially have difficulties with the accessibility of my mobility scooter, and I’d feel anxious about the lack of Covid precautions. These are just some of the difficulties I personally would face so it is no wonder that disability activism is often online. Unfortunately, this can result in it being less visible and often only reaching those already within the disabled community, leading to limited impact and little change.

In October 2022, ME Action UK organised a demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament. Many people with ME/CFS are house or bedbound so only a handful of us could attend in person. However, the live-streamed video shared on Facebook amassed over 1,900 views. Imagine the impact if 1,900 people had gathered outside of Parliament! ME Action has a few ingenious alternative solutions to this lack of visibility in their #MillionsMissing displays, which include asking people with ME to send pairs of shoes that are then displayed in public places. Most recently, ME Action staged an impactful art installation in front of the Washington Monument displaying red beds with pillows sent in by people with ME.

These examples show the importance of online and alternative activism. However, greater visibility can only be achieved if these alternative forms of communication spread beyond the disabled community. We can achieve this through sharing articles and posts widely across social media, amplifying disabled voices and, most importantly, gaining them more widespread recognition in mainstream media.

We need the institutions and mechanisms of politics to become more forgiving and accessible if we are to address the inequalities and issues that exist in our society. I hope that by continuing to amplify disabled voices using all avenues accessible to us and changing those that are not, more routes into politics will open up. Welcoming the voices of disabled people and allowing us to play a greater role in a more equal society is what politics and democracy are all about.

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