A disabled politician has described how the discriminatory treatment she received at the hands of the Liberal Democrats, as one of the party’s elected councillors, was so bad it triggered epileptic seizures and left her feeling suicidal.
Avril Coelho, a former chair of the Liberal Democrat Disability Association (LDDA), says she faced discrimination and bullying by party officials as an up-and-coming disabled politician in the party’s Richmond and Twickenham stronghold.
She is now taking legal action against the party over its alleged failure to provide her with the reasonable adjustments she needed while campaigning to be elected to Richmond council in 2018, and the unlawful victimisation she says she suffered when she complained.
Her case is due to be heard at a civil court in south-west London next month, and she is now seeking financial support through a crowd-funding website to pay her legal fees.
She said she decided to take the case because she wanted to ensure that other disabled women of colour – and others – can speak out on issues of social justice within the party.
Coelho was elected as a Liberal Democrat councillor on Richmond council in 2018, winning a previously safe Conservative seat.
But despite the party being aware of her degenerative condition, which causes epilepsy, migraines and chronic pain, she claims it refused to provide the support she needed with campaigning.
In a legal document describing her claim against the party, she says she was set targets that were “unobtainable for a single person with limited mobility, no access to private transport and in full time work”.
She says the party also failed to set up a web page for her, and to provide her with the same literature as other candidates.
At the election count, she was told by the party that none of her Liberal Democrat group could leave early, and – as a result – she had a seizure.
Hours later, the local party arranged a victory photoshoot for candidates before she had time to recover from her seizure, she claims.
In the closing stages of the election campaign, she had complained about the local party’s failure to provide her with the reasonable adjustments she had requested.
But instead of dealing with those concerns, a party official submitted a complaint about her complaint.
Even though she was off sick with stress, the party went ahead with its investigation and produced a report without interviewing her or her witnesses or seeing her evidence.
She was reprimanded and told she could not stand as a parliamentary candidate for two years.
She had been on the party’s list of candidates approved to stand at general elections, but she was unable to seek selection as the candidate for Twickenham – a seat the party went on to win at the 2019 general election – because of the ban.
She claims this treatment was unlawful victimisation under the Equality Act.
Coelho was also excluded from the ruling group of Richmond councillors, and her formal approval to stand for re-election to the council in the party’s name was not renewed.
She told Disability News Service this week that her treatment led to her being “excommunicated, isolated, bullied, disrespected, side-lined, [and I] had my epileptic seizures triggered and exacerbated”.
The anxiety she experienced at her treatment led to suicidal thoughts while she was shielding alone during the pandemic, and she was left sitting as an independent councillor.
Coelho continued to speak out against what she saw as significant discrimination, but she faced what she says were further “ridiculous” complaints.
After being elected unopposed as LDDA chair, she was told her party membership was being suspended, based on allegations of bullying – which she claims were unfounded – which led to another seizure.
She says she was “inevitably” expelled from the party.
The ordeal caused migraines, epileptic seizures and physical injuries from those seizures, as well as significant mental distress.
Coelho claims in her civil case that the party “weaponised” its complaints system as a way of silencing her after she complained about her treatment and expressed her wider concerns about discrimination.
She told DNS: “The court action I am taking, at great risk to myself (which the party’s lawyers waste no time in reminding me), is important to me, but it’s also important to everyone who is reading this.
“Only by challenging orthodoxy can we ensure the change in societal attitudes that is so desperately needed.”
Elliot Hammer, Coelho’s solicitor, and a partner at Branch Austin McCormick, said: “I am very pleased to represent Avril Coelho in her disability discrimination case against the Liberal Democrats, including claims for a failure to make reasonable adjustments and for unlawful victimisation, at her trial on 23 and 24 October 2023.
“We urge any members of the public who want to support Avril to donate to her crowd funder or to share and talk about her case on social media.”
A Liberal Democrat spokesperson said: “It would not be appropriate for us to comment on this case given that legal proceedings are ongoing.”
Picture: Avril Coelho with Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey, who is not mentioned in her legal claim
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