In her spare room, Emily Brothers shows me a battered old Braille machine. It looks sturdy, like a toolbox, and weighs a tonne. “When I was ten, and losing my sight – well, it was 1974 and my dad was on strike,” she says. “We didn’t have any money, and the men in his trade union got together to buy me this.”
Forty years on, the machine still works; Brothers punches out a card with my name on to prove it. She now uses it in her effort to be elected as MP for Sutton and Cheam, a constituency on the outskirts of London at the far south of the Northern Line. Her chances are, it is fair to say, not good; Labour scored just 7 per cent of the vote in this Lib Dem-Tory marginal at the last election.
Brothers is also aware that this might be her only roll of the dice. In order to campaign, she relies on her two assistants to skim-read information and convert it into accessible formats, and to steer her towards the right people to talk to at events. She tells me that being blind at party conference makes networking far harder, as it is easy for her to get stuck with the “conference bore” or, worse, end up “talking to a pillar”.
But the money to pay for her assistants comes from a cross-party pot, administered by the Department for Work and Pensions, called the Access to Elected Office Fund. It is being closed in March. “Beyond the next election, I’m not going to get funding – unless a Labour government gets in and makes a quick decision,” she tells me over a cup of tea in her living room. “There is going to at least be a gap.” She bangs her fist on her lap for emphasis. “The parties should have got around the table and come to a cross-party commitment and continued it. They haven’t. That is a criticism from me to all parties – and a challenge.”
The loss of the fund will be felt particularly keenly for several reasons. The first is that several trailblazing MPs (such as David Blunkett) are stepping down at the next election, leaving only a handful of disabled representatives in the Commons, with little prospect of replacing them. Brothers knows of only one other disabled candidate, Mary Griffiths Clarke, who has ME, who is standing for Labour. “Mary keeps quoting that we have 11 million disabled people in this country; that equates to 104 disabled people in parliament,” says Brothers. “But we’ll be lucky if we have five or six.” (It is possible there are others who have not disclosed their disability to selectors – which was not an option in her case; her condition is “blindingly obvious”, she says with a wry smile.)
Dame Anne Begg, who has been the Labour MP for Aberdeen South since 1997, concurs that there is a problem. “With disability issues, it’s often two steps forward, one step back.” This parliament, she tells me over the phone, “has been the one step back. Attitudes seem to have polarised to ‘Aren’t they wonderful?’, which is the Paralympics, or ‘What a bunch of scroungers. If they got off their bums, they could do a lot more.’” Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms have hit disabled people particularly hard, with cuts to several services – each of which might be manageable on its own – piling up for people who rely on multiple benefits to keep them mobile and active.
This point exercises Emily Brothers hugely, because, as someone who was born sighted and had to learn to cope with going blind, she insists vehemently that disabled people’s potential is being overlooked by employers. “I believe there needs to be some form of [statutory] disability leave – where people can take time out, under an agreed action plan, to adjust or rehabilitate,” she says. “It might be time out for treatment, it might be time out to learn new skills.”
Both she and Begg mention better public transport as a way of giving disabled people more independence. London buses are now wheelchair-accessible, and have audible announcements of stops – simple changes that make a huge difference. But in other areas of the country, progress is slower.
Why does any of this matter? “It’s not just about how the chamber looks,” Brothers says. “It’s about how decisions are made. I think if you’re talking about access for disabled people in the transport system, using the roads, benefits, employment opportunities . . . if you’re talking about those issues and you have a disability, you bring a different perspective. That adds value, in the way that it adds value for us to have more women.” She believes that a more representative parliament would help combat the anti-politics mood, where “people feel that politicians are not like them”.
Frances Ryan, who writes for the NS website on disability issues, adds a caveat. “Getting more disabled people into politics is never going to be the magic bullet for fixing the pretty dire state of disability policy in this country,” she tells me via email. “It’s better class representation as much as disability that would help the Commons understand what it’s like to have to get by on £61.35 Carer’s Allowance a week. But it’s clear that a policy such as the bedroom tax –
which got through based on a hugely flawed understanding of disabled people’s needs – would have looked very different if there had been more disabled voices in the room.”
At least getting into the Commons is now only electorally, rather than physically, challenging. “Given that it’s a historic building, they’ve done a good job of building access in,” says Begg, who uses a powered wheelchair and has an office close to the chamber.
She advises disabled candidates to be upfront about reassuring voters and selectors that they are up to the job – because although no one will say anything for fear of seeming politically incorrect, “they’re still thinking it”. Finally, she says, they should cherish the hard work and bloody-mindedness that got them into selection in the first place: “The kind of qualities you need to survive as an active disabled person are the same qualities you want in an MP.”