Focus your mind… imagine meeting your favourite world leader, they can be from any time. Of course, A lot of these figures will be males, so equally imagine your favourite women leader standing nearby. I now invite you to imagine your favourite openly disabled leader joining alongside. I can predict only a few of you will be able to. Why on earth is this? To make matters worse, society doesn’t seem to identify the minimal number of disabled people in politics as a problem. Perfectly so, we manage to ask the questions ‘Why are there not enough women in power?’ or ‘Where are the politicians from state schools?’’. Something which fails to cross most minds is ‘Why have we never had a disabled prime minister? Or ‘Why have I never seen a political actor who is deaf or blind? The lack of outrage surrounding such underrepresentation reflects that society doesn’t believe disabled people belong in such walks of life.
Living in a world not quite designed for you can be confusing and challenging. As an autistic young woman, for me, the barriers began at school age. My teachers never quite attempted to understand what autism was. I was labelled as ‘rude’ and ‘inattentive’ when in reality I was just so incredibly nervous I struggled to provide eye contact with teachers and often shut off into my world. Teachers continued to cherry-pick me in class to answer questions, despite my autism diagnosis. My body would be shaken, drenched in sweat and tears would be forming in my eyes, but I still was expected to answer that question the same as everyone else. Time and time again I was told ‘It’s just the curriculum’.
The majority of my high school experience was spent in school bathrooms crying, many afternoons on the phone to my mum begging to come home and the sad reality is that it didn’t have to be this way. If even one of my teachers had sufficient autism spectrum training, this would have been avoided.
If I never had support from my family who constantly fought for my needs, my learning journey would’ve probably ended before I sat my Highers, and any hope of a political career would be a dream. This is often the reality for too many disabled students. School is meant to be a place of education, open to all. Rather than judge others for their extra needs, we should learn to celebrate that not everyone is the same. Disabled people must get an equal start at education and life as the rest of the population. According to Fairer Scotland, disabled people are twice as likely than their non-disabled counterparts to leave school with no qualifications.
We only have to look at Scotland’s parliament to see these statistics in practice. In 2016, one member of the Scottish Parliament identified as disabled. For perspective, 19% of Scotland’s population is disabled; that’s almost 1 in every 5 people. With a single voice to raise concerns for one million people, the problem speaks for itself. By 2021, this number rose to 6. As disabled people are rarely considered political actors, this number may satisfy some people at first glance. However, Scotland is home to one million disabled people. To give disabled people the correct representation, 17 more disabled MSPs would have to be elected to parliament. How can a parliament possibly decide the best course of action, support, and treatment of disabled people with so few disabled people there to represent such an overwhelmingly large community? I’m just guessing here but, that seems kinda impossible.
On the 15th of June 2023, the Scottish government announced the development of a Human Rights Bill on par with devolution. Essentially, this new bill is looking to delve further into the existing Scotland Act 1998, Human Rights Act 1998, and Equality Act 2010. The bill focuses on incorporating four main treaties: one of which being The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which was taken up by the United Nations in 2006. The CRPD is the very treaty where terms such as ‘reasonable adjustments’ are properly defined. A phrase which is essential when you’re a disabled person in a work or school environment, it is the only way to get the help you deserve.
This is a great development for the disabled community, with hopes that discrimination toward disabled people is more recognisable across Scotland’s institutions and the necessary steps are taken to provide proper support. By definition, the term ‘disabled’ means that an individual suffers to carry out day-to-day tasks that many other people find simple. Whether that be due to a physical impairment or a mental one, it all applies. Disabled people can often feel marginalized and on the brink of society. The lack of social understanding and institutional support for disabled people can pretty much shove them to the side. From inaccessibility for wheelchair users to inconsistent educational support for those with learning difficulties, the list would take up the full article!
Identifying as ‘disabled’ covers an array of different needs and the disabled community in Scotland is an array of different people. Disabled people are just as valuable to society as anyone, our needs are just different. The beginnings of developed rights for disabled people hopefully create a more welcoming society for disabled people. I can’t complain there.
I think it’s fair to say Scotland still has a long way to go in terms of adjusting social attitudes and support systems for disabled people to extract them from the corners of society; seeing them in roles where their voices can be heard to make a better Scotland for every member of the population. As a young disabled woman who is hopeful for a future in politics, every day I am deflated that there is little space for people like me in politics. What does motivate me- is to change that fact.