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Funding for Elizabeth Evans on Disability and Politics

Photo of Elizabeth EvansCongratulations to Dr Elizabeth Evans, Reader in Politics, who has been awarded an ISRF Mid-Career Research Fellowship for a project on ‘Disability and Politics: Rethinking Representation’!

Here are the details of the project:

Theoretical approaches to political representation typically distinguish between three dimensions: descriptive representation, the similarity between elected representatives and the represented in terms of their characteristics and backgrounds; substantive representation, the reflection of citizens’ interests and opinions in the preferences of decision-makers and in the outputs of the policy-making process; and, symbolic representation, the effects that representatives have on the electorate. These dimensions have been analysed empirically, specifically in relation to gender and/or ethnicity, which has developed scholarly knowledge and the public understanding of political representation. However, there have been very few studies of disability as it relates to political representation, either at the theoretical or empirical level. This project brings together interdisciplinary disability scholarship with political theory and political science, in order to rethink political representation.

Debates and policies concerning accessibility and inclusion in politics often make reference to disability as one of a list of social groups, and yet to what extent do these proposals seriously reflect upon or engage with either the needs or interests of disabled people? Rather than simply adding disability into existing approaches to political representation, this project seeks to fundamentally rethink what we mean when we talk about political representation, interrogating the implicit, if not explicit, ableist assumptions that lie at its core, especially those concerning merit.

This project questions how a disability lens helps us rethink the three dimensions of political representation. How should we approach descriptive representation in relation to a heterogenous, and sometimes invisible, social group? For example, how do societal approaches to learning disabilities complicate debates concerning the politics of presence? The research will also interrogate the ways in which we conceive of the substantive representation of disabled people’s issues and interests. For example, how does the typically individualised, medicalised and paternalistic approach to disabled people affect the representation of their interests in the policy-making process? Finally, how should we approach symbolic representation in light of assorted impairments, and the porous nature of disability as a social category. For example, how does the varied nature of disability complicate the symbolic value attached to the actions of disabled politicians?

By developing theoretical approaches to political representation, this project questions how adequately existing dimensions of representation are able to respond to debates concerning the presence of disabled people in political institutions. It also examines the ways in which certain frames and narratives dominate the conceptualisation of group identities, issues and interests. This research therefore brings together normative political theory and political science with disability studies, to reimagine what political representation looks like for a heterogeneous social group who remain amongst the most marginalised (and sometimes invisible) in society.


Disability and Political Representation

According to the Department of Work and Pension’s most recent Family Resource Survey, 13.9 million people in the UK reported a disability. This works out at around 22% of the UK population, a percentage which is likely to rise over the next few years due to increased life expectancy. Despite constituting such a significant group, they are under-represented across our political legislatures at both the local and national levels.

Photo by Oliver Cole on Unsplash

The under-representation of disabled people in politics has detrimental consequences for the health of our democracy. In particular, it has the potential to affect the ways in which issues and interests of particular importance to disabled people are represented. When specific groups are under-represented, there is the danger that their voices and perspectives are not included. Indeed, research has shown that disabled people perceive the political system as less responsive to their demands.

Recognising that disabled people face particular types of obstacles in the political recruitment process, and also that the issue itself receives little academic or political attention, the Minister for Women and Equalities has commissioned us — Dr Elizabeth Evans (Goldsmiths, PIR) and Dr Stefanie Reher (University of Strathclyde) — to study the barriers to elected office. By interviewing candidates, activists and elected politicians across all parties, as well as Independents, our objective is to create a list of recommendations on how to tackle and reduce those barriers for relevant stakeholders to discuss, with the ultimate aim of increasing the number of disabled politicians.

Of course, disabled people are not a homogenous group. There are a significant range of impairments that affect people’s opportunities in a variety of ways, including: financial costs; accessibility; the oftentimes aggressive and ‘yah-boo’ nature of Westminster politics; and the demands of election campaigning. The complexity of disability as a category means that there will not be one single explanation for why disabled people are under-represented, nor will there be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to addressing patterns of under-representation.

The issue of disabled people’s political representation has received little attention beyond the UK. This means that we cannot necessarily learn from ‘best practice’ in similar systems of democracy. Indeed, cases in which active measures have been taken to address the representation of disabled people typically occur in post-conflict societies, in which the sudden and significant increase in the number of disabled people required an urgent political solution. For instance, Uganda have introduced reserved seats for disabled people, a strategy that is unlikely to work in the UK system.

Our research is therefore intended to shine a light on the range of barriers experienced by disabled people with a range of impairments in the UK, in order to create a list of appropriate solutions based on the experiences and views of disabled people who are politically engaged. Our findings will be published in a report for the Government Equalities Office, which will be made available to all relevant stakeholders and the public.