Making space for disabled people in political life

Mitzi Waltz

In 2018 and 2019, I was asked to have a closer look at where the people with disabilities were in political life on behalf of Disability Studies in Nederland and the Dutch Ministry of Internal Affairs (Ministerie van Binnenlandse Zaken). Some of the answers I found were surprising, others were not—but I think that they do show a clear way forward, which is a good outcome.

The impetus for the study came from the Ministry. Two insiders who are themselves people with disabilities wanted to know about the inclusion of people with disabilities in the Netherlands. They also wanted to know whether the situation was the same in neighbouring countries. Was Belgium getting it right? Was France a forerunner? Would it turn out that others were even further behind? It stood to reason that comparisons could yield useful data for understanding the lack of disability inclusion on the Dutch political stage.

And so my assignment was received: “gluren bij de buren” to find out about numbers/percentages of disabled people in political office, either as elected officials or political appointees, and then looking behind the scenes for explanations about the factors that tended to lead to their success or failure. I looked mostly at Denmark, Belgium, Germany, France and the United Kingdom.

First, the bad news: in none of these five countries did people with disabilities hold more than 2% of political roles; in most the rate was less than 1%. But even those paltry figures were a generous guesstimate, because none of the focus countries were counting.

So, finding no 1: we all should be counting, just as is done in most countries regarding the progress of women and ethnic minorities in political roles.

Next, I reviewed the scientific and grey literature for information on a few things that could be factors in inclusion. Some of the five countries had employment quotas for people with disabilities—did this help develop the skills and visibility that might lead individuals to move into politics? It seemed not. Did the benefit system play a role? What about equalities legislation and the availability of funded support at work? And did any of the neighbouring nations do anything specific to encourage political participation beyond just getting out the vote? Answers trickled in, but it was clear that to understand what helped, and what hurt, interviews with politicians who have a disability were needed.

That was a harder task than expected, because as noted, such individuals are thin on the ground. Still, nine interviews went forward, ranging from local council members right up to national parliamentarians and members of parliament from several different countries. The findings from those have now been shared with the Ministry, and will hopefully be published later this year in a journal article.  

Here, I’d like to focus on some of the good practices happening in other European countries, all of which could be implemented in the Netherlands. One of them—taking steps to ensure that people with disabilities who want to go into politics receive mentoring—will hopefully be taken forward by the Ministry. It will also be important for the government to ensure that benefits rules don’t get in the way of participation.

Direct support for candidates or office-holders with disabilities also came up, and different countries had working solutions. In the UK, there’s a fund that candidates can tap for the costs of things like sign-language interpretation or a personal assistant (PA) to help with going to door to door to meet voters. Until recently, politicians with disabilities in Denmark have been able to use state-funded PA services to support them while on the campaign trail. And in Belgium, a ‘vertrouwenspersoon’ system allows political parties to appoint a paid assistant for an office-holder who is or becomes disabled.

But crucially, political parties need to get on board to really create change: only they can identify, develop and run candidates, or decide who is given top posts when they get into government. A good model for that was offered by Disability Labour, an affiliate of the UK Labour Party. It supports candidates with disabilities, advocates within the party on disability issues, and tries to ensure that party events are fully inclusive—and they proved to be very happy to talk to others about what can be done. 

In other words, checking in on the neighbours did not turn up another country offers a perfect model. However, it did identify many ideas and practices that the Netherlands can use to try to support political participation and success of citizens with disabilities.


Dr. Mitzi Waltz is a Senior Researcher with Disability Studies in Nederland, and a Researcher at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.