Disabled women celebrate vote centenary but warn of slow progress on rights

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Disabled activists have celebrated this week’s 100-year anniversary of women gaining the right to vote but have warned that disabled women are still facing breaches of their rights in all areas of life.

On Tuesday (6 February), there were public celebrations to mark 100 years since parliament passed the Representation of the People Act in 1918, which gave some women the right to vote for the first time.

But many disabled women, while welcoming the achievements of the suffragettes whose fight helped bring about that change, believe progress in achieving their rights has been “achingly slow”.

Michelle Daley (pictured), co-founder and director of the disabled women’s collective Sisters of Frida (SoF), said: “The suffragettes remain one of the most successful women’s movements in history, bringing the right for women to vote.

“While we celebrate their achievements, we must not forget that there continue to be far too many disabled women who are still not able to exercise their right to vote (just as with other disabled people), and they are far more likely to be sexually abused and much more discriminated against.”

Daley said that disabled women experience “intersectionality” – facing discrimination caused by more than one characteristic – which “increases the experience of inequality”.

She told Disability News Service (DNS): “We continue to be disappointed that disabled women are being failed in all areas of life.

“We know this through attending different UN conventions such as CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women) and CRPD (the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) and it’s clear the UK government is not delivering on its obligations to bring about real equality.”

SoF is currently asking for help from disabled women to gather evidence to present to CEDAW, which will then be used to question the UK government.

Daley said: “It is obvious that there is still a lot more work to be done before the true vision of the suffragettes can be achieved.”

Pam Thomas, a disabled Labour city councillor in Liverpool, highlighted the double discrimination experienced by disabled women in politics.

She told DNS: “It is still very hard. Firstly, women are under-represented in elected positions.

“There are some disabled women but very often we have to fit into a disabling world and not raise issues about disabling barriers or cause any discomfort for those non-disabled people who do not see the problem.

“Generally disabled men do experience disabling barriers, but still benefit from male privilege.”

She said that Liverpool Labour party had decided several years ago to introduce all-women shortlists, which have increased the representation of women on the council’s Labour group to 40 of 81 councillors, and four of nine cabinet members.

Thomas said: “Mayor Joe Anderson has understood what I have been saying and has put me on the cabinet to lead on removing disabling barriers in the city.

“All of that is helpful for disabled women. I continually push for the removal of disabling barriers in policy and practice.”

But she added: “I still have to deal with disabling barriers which hinder my activities every day, mostly in the built environment.”

She said the actions of non-disabled allies such as the mayor, the deputy mayor Ann O’Byrne and cabinet member Cllr Steve Munby “make a real contribution to the removal of disabling barriers”.

She said: “Whilst not everything is perfect, Liverpool is setting a very good example that others could follow.”

Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, which campaigns for MPs to be allowed to job share, and who herself was prevented from standing for parliament on a job share basis in 2010, told DNS: “Progress on disabled women’s rights over the past 100 years has been achingly slow.

“When good proposals are put forward, which would help disabled women get into politics, like job sharing for MPs and local government councillors, they are not taken up by government.

“I would urge readers to email their MPs to ask for a law change to allow job sharing in elected political office.

“Political parties do not even publish adequate data about the numbers of disabled people in their parties and whether there is fair representation of disabled people in the political recruitment process.”

King said she was disappointed by Theresa May’s failure to help more disabled women into politics.

She said: “She could do this by getting the law changed to enable job sharing for MPs and councillors in local government.”

She also pointed out that May’s government had closed the Access to Elected Office Fund in 2015 and has yet to reopen it, and she highlighted the prime minister’s speech in Westminster Hall on the day of the centenary celebrations, in which she said she wanted to see more disabled people in politics and government.

King said that “deeds not words” would mean May would reinstate the fund, which previously provided grants of up to £40,000 for disability-related costs for disabled people standing for the UK parliament and in other English elections, and has been closed since the 2015 general election, supposedly while the government evaluates its success.

King also said that Rosa May Billinghurst, the disabled suffragette, “deserves to be included in exam syllabuses across the country”.

Much of this week’s media coverage of the anniversary mentioned Billinghurst, who used a self-propelled tricycle and was a prominent activist in the years leading up to the First World War, and was repeatedly jailed for taking part in suffragette protests, as well as being force-fed while on hunger strike in prison.

One historian described how there were “loads of reports of her using her tricycle chair to basically ram the police at protests”.

In a blog to mark the centenary, Rhian Davies, chief executive of Disability Wales, pointed to parallels between the history of the campaign for women’s suffrage and the disabled people’s movement.

She pointed to how the suffragists had focused on “parliamentary lobbying and constitutional reform” while the suffragettes, who were “frustrated with the lack of progress”, carried out acts of civil disobedience, which saw many imprisoned and taking part in hunger strikes.

Davies said there was a similar split among disabled people in the 1980s and 1990s, with many taking part in lobbies of parliament and mass rallies, while the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN) “highlighted the inaccessibility of public transport by undertaking suffragette style shock tactics with disabled protestors handcuffing themselves to double-decker buses, gridlocking city centres across the land”.

She said the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995 did not “instantly remove barriers”, and she highlighted how although disabled people have the vote “many are prevented from exercising it due to lack of access to information or indeed to the polling booth itself”.

Davies said that mass civil rights movements can often overlook the experiences of individuals who face multiple forms of discrimination, and she added: “The specific barriers faced by disabled women have not necessarily enjoyed prominence either within the women’s or the disabled people’s movements.”

As part of the centenary celebrations, Disability Wales is highlighting the achievements of D/deaf and disabled women through its Embolden project, which is funded by the charity Spirit of 2012 – set up by the Big Lottery Fund – and the women’s rights charity the Fawcett Society, itself named after the suffragist Millicent Fawcett.

An event at the Welsh National Assembly next month will celebrate eight disabled role models who have been shortlisted from 43 nominations, showing the contributions of D/deaf and disabled women to communities, workplaces, arts, sport and education across Wales.

Meanwhile, the magazine Time Out London has included several disabled women in an article featuring 64 “inspiring” women who have chosen “the heroines who blazed a trail before them”.

They include disabled activist Eleanor Lisney, another co-founder of Sisters of Frida, who chose Nasa Begum, who was a rights campaigner and senior policy adviser to the Department of Health, and Ruth Bashall, a disabled campaigner who leads the user-led organisation Stay Safe East, which supports disabled survivors of abuse in east London.

The disabled Guardian journalist Dr Frances Ryan chose as one of her two picks Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, who she said was “one of many unsung heroes at the forefront of the fight for disabled people’s equality”.

Another disabled woman who contributed to the Time Out London feature was performer and comedian Jess Thom, who chose Ono Dafedjaiye, the disabled co-founder of the arts organisation Perky, which helps girls and women with learning difficulties “to have conversations about womanhood, the body and sexuality”, and Perky’s co-founder Holly Stratton.

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