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Scheme Helps Disabled People Enter Local Politics

October 15, 2014

When prospective councillor Tom Garrod went door-to-door canvassing aged just 18, his first experience did nothing to calm his nerves. He asked to speak to the householder; “I was told they had passed away yesterday,” he says.

But it was only a minor setback for Garrod. Living with cerebral palsy, he also had to be creative to get his message across. As the condition alters his speech, he had to abandon telephone canvassing. “People thought it was a prank caller,” he laughs. But he made up for it by making good use of his digital savvy, spreading his ideas through social media – something he says older councillors weren’t able to do so easily.

The young Conservative was elected to Norfolk county council, in 2009. Now aged 25, Garrod’s experiences have helped shape a new scheme aimed at encouraging more people with disabilities to become councillors.

The scheme is part of the Local Government Association’s “be a councillor” campaign to widen the diversity and number of new councillors.

“We do struggle to get good quality councillors,” says Gary Porter, leader of South Holland district council and vice-chair of the Local Government Association (LGA), who mentored Garrod through his early years as a councillor.

“There are about 11 million people who are disabled in one way or another and we’re just not getting enough of those people coming forward. Most of them have to deal with challenges in their own personal lives that make them pretty strong characters.”

In 2010, a parliamentary report into political representation identified barriers to disabled people becoming elected representatives, including the cost of services, such as interpretation or mobility aids that would be required for candidates to do their job. In response, a central government scheme, Access to Elected Office, was set up in 2012 to provide grants to cover the additional costs for disabled candidates.

But the LGA saw there was still a gap: often potential candidates didn’t know where to turn or who to ask if they wanted to get involved in politics. So in February, it set up the pilot scheme, which provides mentoring for future candidates with disabilities and taps into Access to Elected Office funding to provide support grants of between £250 and £40,000to spend on anything that might help break down barriers to disabled people seeking local office.

Candidates are identified by the LGA’s political party groups, and go through a competitive process to secure their place. “We’re looking for people who have an interest in local government,” says Nan Sloane, a diversity expert hired by the LGA’s Labour group to search for its prospective councillors. In total, 20 will be selected before the 2015 local elections, split across the parties. They are then assigned a mentor from their party (or, in the case of smaller parties, from the LGA independent group).

One of the first to be signed up is 29-year-old social entrepreneur Susanne Rees, a prospective candidate for the Green party in Northampton. Diagnosed at 19 with a genetic condition that causes tumours to grow on her central nervous system, it is the 10 years she has spent being supported by the NHS that drives her political ambitions.

“I’m turning 30 next year so I’m still really young, but I’ve got a lot of life experience. Almost every single public service you can think of I’ve had experience of,” she says. “I’m very concerned about the future of the NHS. It’s being torn to pieces at the moment. I really owe my life 10 times over to the NHS.

“One of the biggest things for me was to see how out of touch the government is with those people who are on the grassroots side and I think that’s what fuels me the most. I see a lot in the power of localism and that’s really what drove me to go and explore politics at a community level,” she says.

Rees set up the social enterprise iDID Adventure to change the way physiotherapy is delivered to young people, using exciting sports such as rock climbing to rebuild muscle and improve movement. “It came from my experience of physiotherapy when I was younger. It was crap because I was 19 and everybody else was in their 60s and 70s. I felt too well to be there,” she explains.

A former Liberal Democrat, she became interested in the Green party last year as she looked for a new political home that aligned with her values. “A lot of my philosophy of life is about social equality. I was one of those who was really disillusioned by the coalition.”

Five years ago, Rees lost her hearing. She will spend her grant money on an interpreter. “I think the biggest barrier for me is to do with my confidence,” she says. “Whilst I am actually quite good at lip reading, after an hour lip reading someone you don’t know very well you need a kip. Communication support is absolutely vital. It makes me be the best I can be for the role.”

She adds: “If you have a disability, and there are barriers you’re going to face, [politics] looks volatile and it looks scary, so psychologically it’s not accessible – especially if you’re not somebody who has a family in politics.”

Her mentor is Ray Morgan, an independent councillor at the London borough of Havering, who has been in office for 12 years. “As with any role you come into, you need somebody to show you the ropes and give you a helping hand,” he says. “Hopefully I’ve got quite a lot of experience that I can impart. We need the diversity of different people so they can truly reflect the local community.”

Each candidate’s disability and their needs will be different, and Garrod, who advised the LGA on the mentoring scheme, stresses the need for flexibility about the size of the grant and what it is spent on, be it taxi transport, speech therapy or confidence training. “I said [to the LGA], I can tell you what I need, but let’s not design the whole scheme on that. The best person to ask is the candidate who’s applying.”

He also says it’s important that the candidates aren’t pigeonholed by their disabilities once they are elected.

“I came into politics because I care about the community, not because I’m disabled,” he says. As deputy cabinet member for children’s services, Garrod became involved in a project around special educational needs. “One of my fellow councillors said, ‘Tom, this is the perfect thing for you’. I said, ‘why is that? I don’t know what it’s like to be autistic or have Down’s syndrome’,” he explains. “I haven’t got a monopoly on knowledge about disability.”

Rees has no worries about facing a public who she admits can have unsavoury ideas about disabled people. “I’m quite confident to go out there and show people that this is me. I think that’s what’s great about schemes like this – it puts disability out there. Disability is still misunderstood and that’s why we still have these attitudes in society.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 15, 2014 12:51 pm

    Reblogged this on nearlydead.

  2. October 15, 2014 10:53 pm

    Reblogged this on Britain Isn't Eating.

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