Two new disabled MPs who won their seats in last week’s general election have both pledged to use their time in parliament to fight for the rights of disabled people.
Marsha de Cordova and Jared O’Mara both scored unexpected victories for the Labour party as part of an election upset that saw Jeremy Corby’s party perform far better than had been predicted by most of the media and polling companies.
Disabled Tory ministers Robert Halfon – who was sacked from his frontbench role this week in Theresa May’s post-election reshuffle – and Paul Maynard were both re-elected as MPs, as was Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, Marie Rimmer.
Stephen Lloyd won back Eastbourne for the Liberal Democrats, after previously serving as MP for the town between 2010 and 2015.
Among disabled candidates who narrowly failed to win seats were the Labour trio of Mary Griffiths Clarke in Arfon, north Wales, Pam Duncan Glancy in Glasgow North, and Wayne Blackburn in Pendle, while Kelly-Marie Blundell came second for the Liberal Democrats in Lewes, Sussex, and Labour’s Heather Peto came a distant second to the Conservatives in Rutland and Melton.
In one of the shocks of election night, De Cordova (pictured), who had been a Lambeth councillor and engagement and advocacy director for the sight loss charity Thomas Pocklington Trust, overturned a majority of nearly 8,000 to beat Tory former health minister Jane Ellison by more than 2,000 votes in Battersea, south London.
In her acceptance speech, she said: “As a visually-impaired person myself, I feel passionately about the rights of disabled people.
“Accessibility in our public places and on public transport still falls short of what is reasonable. I will use my time in parliament to lobby for improvements in these areas.
“In the fifth richest country in the world, there can be no excuses for leaving behind a large number of our citizens.”
She also pledged that Labour would fight the “back door” privatisation of the NHS by the Tories and the attack on public services “by a Tory government that cares little about the many and that has proven that they only look after the few”, and that she would work with the mayor of London, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, to tackle the lack of social housing being built in her constituency.
An even more high-profile victory saw another disabled Labour politician, Jared O’Mara, defeat the Liberal Democrat former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg in his Sheffield Hallam constituency, overturning a majority of more than 2,000 votes in 2015 to win himself by a similar margin.
O’Mara, who has a background of working with disability organisations in Sheffield, said in his acceptance speech: “20 years ago, there was a 15-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who went to his careers adviser at school and his careers advisor asked him, ‘What would you like to be when you grow up?’
“And that 15-year-old boy with cerebral palsy said, ‘I’d like to be a politician.’
“If you haven’t noticed already, that boy is me, I do have cerebral palsy and I want every single disabled person out there to know, everybody that’s got learning difficulties, everybody who has mental health issues, everybody who has a physical disability like me, or has any illness, I will be on your side, I will be your ally and friend and champion in Westminster.”
In a blog written for the disability charity Scope last year, when he stood unsuccessfully as a candidate for Sheffield council, he said that disabled election candidates can be “more passionate, resilient, empathetic and hard working than non-disabled candidates by virtue of everything being harder for us in life”.
He also spoke of his anger at the government’s decision to close the Access to Elected Office Fund (AEOF) after the 2015 general election.
The fund had helped local and general election candidates with their extra disability-related costs, and O’Mara said its closure had cost him “a large three figure sum” in fighting the council election.
He said then that more should be done to support disabled people into public life, and called for a return of the fund, as well as “full legal aid provision for disability discrimination cases”, and for political parties to choose some parliamentary candidates from shortlists made up only of disabled people.
Although there appear to be only six MPs who self-identify as disabled people, there are believed to be others who would be considered as disabled people under the Equality Act because of the significant impact of long-term health conditions or impairments – potentially including the prime minister Theresa May, who has diabetes – but who do not consider themselves to be disabled people.
Labour’s shadow home secretary Diane Abbott could be one of them, after she revealed this week – following Tory attacks during the election campaign that focused on her performance in media interviews – that she was diagnosed with diabetes two years ago and that her health had affected her performance during the election campaign.
She said that facing a string of interviews without eating enough food had affected her blood sugar levels.
Phyl Meyer, project manager for Inclusion Scotland’s Access to Elected Office Fund (Scotland), which is funded by the Scottish government and provides financial support for disabled candidates for Scottish local and devolved elections, said it had been “very disappointing to have been able to offer so much support which made such a big difference to disabled candidates in the local elections [earlier this year] and not to have been able to do that for the Westminster elections”.
He said that holding a snap election had also affected potential disabled candidates,
He added: “The very act of holding a snap election is hugely disadvantageous to disabled candidates.
“Making arrangements like personal assistants and communication support in such a short timescale is just totally unrealistic.”
Meyer said Inclusion Scotland was keen to push for job-sharing to be allowed for MPs.
He said: “It is very, very clear to us that without some sort of job-sharing option we are never going to achieve full inclusion for disabled people in elected office, unless the structure changes dramatically.”
Inclusion Scotland is considering setting up a new campaign to push for more elected disabled politicians, hopefully with backing from many of the 40-plus political activists who received support from the fund at the last local council elections in May.
It would replace the successful One in Five project, which campaigned for greater representation of disabled people in Scottish politics but has now closed down.
Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, has campaigned for job-sharing to be allowed for MPs, and said she hoped the two new disabled MPs would back that campaign.
She said: “Disabled people are under-represented in the Commons.
“Hopefully, Marsha de Cordova and Jared O’Mara will support our campaign to get job-sharing for MPs.
“This would enable other disabled people to become MPs. We need more disability rights activists to come forward and stand.”