WHY WE NEED
As the world awaited the final results of the US mid-term elections last November, there was already a collective buzz about the historic victories for women and minority candidates. Take for instance the epic rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who just last year was mixing Margaritas at a New York restaurant, and now, she's arrived in Washington as the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. As a millennial, Ocasio-Cortez is naturally social media-savvy (no midnight Twitter tirades à la Trump, thank you) and understands first-hand the challenges young people are facing today. Just yesterday she spoke about the indignity of not having healthcare and being unable to provide for family even while working a full-time job. Likewise, Democrats Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar became the first female Muslim representatives to cruise to victory in their respective states- to name a few.
Call it the Trump effect, but since the 2016 election, the US has seen record numbers of people from diverse backgrounds deciding to run for political office- even those who would never have contemplated a career in politics are feeling compelled to as the administration puts their lives and rights under threat. People want and need real change, and sometimes there's no other option than rolling up your sleeves and taking this duty upon yourself. Barry Blitz's widely-shared New Yorker cover ('Welcome to Congress') was a powerful celebration of this new diverse influx- set against a room full of line-drawn male establishment figures, the door is cast open by a trio of determined, fresh faces sketched in colour.
This media dialogue arguing the results have been 'history-making', 'a night of firsts', 'ground-breaking', has largely overlooked the successes made by disabled candidates across US. Nearly 57 million Americans have a disability (according to the Census Bureau) making the group the country's largest minority, so surely any victories made by disabled candidates are worthy of a namecheck?
For some context, Trump's political stance on disability is not surprisingly viewed as contemptible, given this is a man who remarked that US Paralympians were "tough to watch" and publically mocked Serge Kovaleski, a physically disabled New York Times reporter on his campaign trail. A few months after Trump took up office, things became even worse when the Republicans announced a cap on the American Health Care Act and Medicaid (which greatly reduced access to medical care at home and community services). A national disability rights organisation called ADAPT quickly staged a Washington "die-in" in protest. During the demonstration, many activists were forcibly removed from their wheelchairs and brazenly carried out by police. Their treatment illustrated how politics had really become a matter of life and death.
There are a number of disabled US politicians, who are equally part of this vanguard of diverse candidates who are ensuring politics is representative of the society we live in. I believe that compared to their able-bodied peers, disabled politicians will always have greater awareness of the daily difficulties surrounding accessibility, healthcare, benefits and more. Lauren Underwood is just one of 12 elected candidates with a disability (bear in mind this figure may not be fully accurate given a possible reluctance to disclose a disability). At 8 years old, she was diagnosed with a heart condition which occasionally prevents her heart from maintaining a normal rhythm. As an American with a disability, Lauren understands the importance of quality, affordable health care for all regardless of your financial situation. Also, Jim Langevin has been the first quadriplegic to serve in Congress since his election in 2001.
Or consider Senator Tammy Duckworth, who late last year was photographed by Annie Lebovitz for American Vogue. The accompanying profile covered everything from the military explosion that took her legs and the challenges of motherhood at the age of 50, to her entrance into the Washington political sphere. The feature was a testament to her determination and self-belief in the face of extreme adversity. Case in point, when she declared that she would be running as a candidate for congress, she had to make her announcement with an IV still in her arm. She understands that her physical disability is not a mark of weakness but quite the opposite, '"…when I see this"-she gestures toward the steel-and-titanium prosthesis attached to her thigh above her right knee-"I see strength. I see a reminder of where I am now." Same thing with her wheelchair. "People always want me to hide it in pictures. I say no! I earned this wheelchair. It's no different from a medal I wear on my chest. Why would I hide it?"' Her story of survival serves as an important message, and who better to be placed in a position of political authority.
How does this compare to Westminster? Well, currently the House of Commons includes four disabled MPs, an increase of two on the last term. This includes MPs like Marsha de Cordova who is registered blind. But with the four MPs amounting to less than 1% of the total seats in parliament, and 20% of the UK population having disabilities, this is not an adequate reflection of the society we live in- the math just doesn't add up…
Indeed, this intake was described as 'disappointing' by the founder of the One in Five campaign for more disabled politicians. 'The biggest barrier is the cost of standing for election and getting through the selection process.' Ahead of the General Election in 2017, Marie Tidball (Labour's candidate for Oxford West and Abingdon) wrote a Guardian op-ed addressing why there are so few disabled candidates standing for parliament. One major issue is the huge financial cost of running for office, since the Access to Elected Office fund has now been abolished. The fund, which was 'put on hold' in 2015, paid for things such as assistance and travel costs.
You also have to consider the physical toll and issues surrounding access during a political campaign. For example, with canvassing votes, many residential areas are inaccessible, involving steep inclines and flights of stairs, making it impossible to reach the same number of voters and spread the word on your policies.
It has long been proven, empirically and anecdotally, that organisations make better and more inclusive decisions when they are driven by a diversity of voices. Whether it's improving the representation of gender, race, ability, age or social background, the importance of who makes our policies and shapes the world we live in has never been more vital.
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