21/09/2018 09:05 BST | Updated 21/09/2018 09:08 BST

Party Conference Season Is A Reminder We Need Greater Inclusion Of Disabled People In Politics

Across the UK, disabled people are struggling to get the support they need. More inclusive party conferences are a small, but significant step, in changing this picture of exclusion

Toby Melville / Reuters

Seasoned party-conference goers bemoan the stamina needed for the networking in bars and pubs on conference evenings. But our charity hears all too often how inaccessible pubs and bars can be for disabled people. This makes this conference staple, arguably part of the Westminster boys’ club stereotype, just one aspect of conference season that is not inclusive.

Disabled people often feel their needs are left out of political discourse and they need to be able to go to political party conferences. This is true at any time, but right now I know that much of the current political agenda is of crucial importance to many disabled people - the social care crisis, Brexit and access to employment to name but a few.

Inaccessible conferences are inseparable from a larger problem; that right now, politics doesn’t look inclusive. Of the 14million disabled people in the UK, there are only a handful of MPs with a disclosed disability. For voters, our research tells us that disabled people continue to face barriers to voting and with engaging with their political representatives.

Last month the government did announce a series of recommendations to make the electoral system more inclusive, including a review of the Access to Elected Office fund. While we await this, I believe the conferences provide another great starting point for all political parties to boost diversity and encourage more disabled people to come through the ranks. After all, under the Equality Act 2010 they have a legal duty to take reasonable steps to remove barriers faced by disabled members.

We are working with the Labour Party to help promote disability equality at their party conference in Liverpool. As well as carrying out venue inspections, we’ve also provided disability equality training to stewards. We want them to feel confident in engaging with and supporting disabled people attending the event, because the benefits of conferences can be profound for disabled people.

Anil Sharma, who volunteers with Leonard Cheshire’s Can Do youth volunteering programme, told us: “It is fantastic to attend political party conferences as I believe it is good to speak to MPs directly as it makes more of an impact in my opinion.

“I attended a disability employment fringe event at conference and it was a fantastic opportunity for me to put forward my experiences on the issues of disability employment to MPs. I enjoyed the whole experience and it was a brilliant opportunity to meet many influential people whose focus was to make life easier for disabled people.

“I believe there is a long way to go but it is good to know that people are listening to disability organisations and individuals like me”.

Tony Roebuck, who is supported by learning disability charity United Response to attend party conference also told us how important taking part was. He said:

“Going to party conference is really good as you get to hear and talk about lots of important issues. I’ve been to two party conferences now and the best thing is being able to speak to MPs about learning difficulties. They always listen when I talk to them.

“I think they should make party conferences bigger and give better access to people in wheelchairs. I know some people who use them and have struggled when they go to party conference.”

For conference organisers, the Equality Act is a great place to start when making events more inclusive. However, one of my main pieces of advice is to listen to each individual about their needs. Event organisers should also consider not just the venue, but travel to the venue too.

A quiet space can be important for a variety of disabilities (and should be different to a prayer room). Having content in an accessible takeaway form such as a memory stick can make a real difference for delegates, as can asking speakers to speak slowly and having interpreters. Another piece of advice specific to wheelchair users is to avoid only having one wheelchair-friendly space at the front of an auditorium or having one wheelchair-friendly table in breakout rooms so that individuals can sit where they want and mix with other delegates.

Sadly, I all too often hear from understandably distressed individuals who have been challenged when they seek assistance for a disability, especially if they have a hidden disability. Nobody should need to prove a disability in order to gain access to basic facilities, such as toilets. As with any event, getting to know your delegates in advance (even if just via a registration form) and giving them opportunities to make requests will make everyone’s life easier. And as for the boozy evenings of conferences, the current Licensing Act 2003 does not have provisions that comply with the Equality Act to secure accessibility for disabled people.

I believe politics needs more disabled people participating fully to help create a more inclusive society. The statistics speak for themselves. We found that more than a fifth (22%) of employers say they would be less likely to employ someone if they have a disability. Across the UK, we know that disabled people are struggling to get the support they need. More inclusive party conferences are a small, but significant step, in changing this picture of exclusion.

Neil Heslop is CEO at Leonard Cheshire