Disability Awareness Month: Politics levels the Playing Field
I don’t usually take time to reflect on the influence my disability has had on my involvement in politics but I know it might help someone who feels because their disability “politics isn’t for them.” As somebody who has Cerebral Palsy (CP) I understand where you are coming from as that was once me too.
After voting Yes in the 2014 referendum and feeling gutted about the result like many people across Scotland, I felt the need to do something, so I joined the SNP that November. Joining a political party wasn’t something I’d ever really properly considered; I’ll admit that before I left my house to go to my first branch meeting, I was apprehensive. When you go into a room where you don’t know anyone, you’re always nervous plus on top of that with my CP, I had previous experienceof disability discrimination. I also wasn’t sure how people would perceive me especially because you can see my disability before I even speak. This fear of being judged and feeling like you need to prove yourself to others that little bit more because you’re disabled is something which I’ve found never goes away. Even though I know that everyone I meet will treat me as their equal and that they’re more interested in my ideas and my abilities rather than looking at how I walk.
We often say that in the SNP it’s like having a “second family” because despite all the apprehension you often experience before your first branch meeting, you realise within seconds of walking in the door that people want to learn what you think and share their ideas with you in an open, honest way. Additionally, beyond the political side of things, you do make friends and this in many ways becomes an extended support network which is extremely beneficial in both political and personal sense. This means that others might ask about your disability, how it affects you and if there are any adaptations you might need; this isn’t them being nosy, it’s an offer of help so you can grow and flourish. If you are disabled and you aren’t sure about something or if you need help you shouldn’t be scared to ask. As someone who is soon to be “getting my bus pass” in YSI terms, over time you’ll find like I did that once you know how things work; it will be others coming to you for help (including those who have been in the game longer than you have!)
Being disabled does mean there are things you just can’t do no matter how hard you try and that is okay, I’ve been there too so I know how frustrating it can get. I was fortunate enough to serve as the YSI’s National Secretary from 2018 until February this year and I would be lying if I said there weren’t strategies I developed to make sure that I could do my role well. Living with CP does mean that at times where I’m spending weekends on my feet, such as at party conference, is physically impossible for me - it didn’t come as a surprise to members that at times I would spend time in the quiet room to switch off, or be found taking a short break where I’d be sitting down for a while. When you get caught up in the moment its easy to push yourself beyond your limits, especially when things get stressful or super busy. Knowing how your disability affects you, and having close friends in party circles who know this too, is vital so that they can tell you truthfully before you are about to exceed your limits that you need to stop for your own good. You don’t need to tell many people, but your close friends should know so that if you’re struggling or are about to burn out they can help you avoid it.
As someone who is disabled and involved in politics there is one big advantage I have over my non-disabled peers; my experience of living with a disability and the way this influences my politics. Growing up in a world that’s not fully adapted for disabled people means that we have a unique perspective on the world with an lived insight into policy areas that others won’t have. I have when debating and developing policy tried to keep the personal and the political seperate. However, in some cases mixing the two and using your experience of being disabled helps.
For example, being born with CP as I was born prematurely means that I know from my parents and my immediate family what they went through when I was a baby. This led me to work within the YSI to introduce neonatal leave as a key tenet of our vision for Social Security in an independent Scotland. This was a very difficult issue for me to discuss and debate, but the encouragement I got from watching several of my colleagues (including those who who I didn’t expect) speaking up in favour of a resolution like this and sharing their own personal experiences and that of their families, clearly demonstrates the influence and unique impact a disabled persons perspective can have on important issues.
I know this is a long read but if it helps just one disabled person to take that step and put themselves out there it has been worth it. The political world may seem alien at first but when the wider world is not designed for disabled people it is perhaps ironic that being involved in the political one is the best way of creating that level playing field that the wider world should be for all of us.