One in five British people are disabled. So why does politics continue to ignore us?

Anne Wafula Strike
Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The issue of disability rights has risen socially and culturally in recent years. Politically, however, disabled people remain in the shadows. Austerity has been brutal for disabled people. In 2017 the UN accused the government of violating disabled people’s rights and causing a “human catastrophe”. Disabled people in Britain remain some of the most marginalised and forgotten people in British society.

As the Brexit debate has raged on, silence has prevailed when it comes to its implications for disabled people – the challenges they are likely to face or the measures being put in place to mitigate fallout.

I urge everyone in politics to bring disabled people into your movements. You cannot legislate for what you do not know

The European Accessibility Act of 2015 ensures that products and services are accessible to disabled people. This Act makes a vital difference to millions of people: what will happen to it when we leave? The European Social Fund currently gives £500m a year to organisations in the UK that provide employment and training support for disadvantaged groups including disabled people. MPs have warned that the loss of this fund could be “disastrous”. What measures are there to reduce the damage?

Even the Tory former care minister Caroline Dinenage admitted that “no formal impact assessment” had been carried out by her department to review the impact of a no-deal Brexit on disabled people.

According to government data, there are 13.9 million disabled people in the UK. That means disabled people make up 22% of the UK population – more than one in five. Surely policies affecting the lives of so many people should be prioritised? With an election around the corner, politicians would be foolish to underestimate the voting power of such a large proportion of the population.

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Disabled and vulnerable people must not be left out when it comes to voting at this election. The postal vote helps those with accessibility issues, but it is also essential that disabled people are visible at polling stations, on election day, to promote inclusion. Plans must consider the weather challenges that come with a December election. There’s now an agency responsible for publishing accessible versions of party manifestos and providing guidance for returning officers to make their polling stations accessible. Resources and infrastructure must be made available to ensure they do so.

Growing up in Kenya, my family and I had to flee my village because the community thought my disability had brought a curse. They wanted to burn our house down. We are a long way from this in the UK, but disability hate crime is on the up, and many disabled people are experiencing poverty and isolation.

One of the critical steps to real inclusion is the full representation of disabled people in political life – from representation in the electorate via accessible voting through to party membership and leadership roles. Disabled people must be in the room, on panels and in leadership teams.

In a truly inclusive society, it would be the norm to see disabled people represented by and integrated into all areas of political life. Until this happens, our voices remain silent.

I urge every person engaged in politics – from the community level to the national – to make sure you bring disabled people into your movements. Broaden your discussions. You cannot legislate for what you do not know. When society denies disabled people a voice and a platform in the decisions that affect our lives, we are left further and further behind. We need structural, systemic change. Disabled people must get proper access to all aspects of social life, and barriers must be broken down – physical barriers in our society, and mental barriers in people’s assumptions about disability.

We need to reimagine society, with disabled people moved from the shadows to be part of everyday life. Disabled people must be at the centre of discussions; their perspectives and solutions are urgently needed to make society inclusive and equitable. And that goes too for Brexit preparations, otherwise the rights of disabled people in the UK could be seriously and unfairly damaged.

• Anne Wafula Strike is a British Paralympic wheelchair racer