It Is Almost 50 Years Since Jack Ashley Became the World’s Only Totally Deaf Lawmaker – But What Has Changed?


Last month (March 2017) Dawn Butler made history by becoming the first MP to use British Sign Language (BSL) to pose a question in the House of Commons. She asked whether the Government would give BSL a legal status alongside other recognised languages.  As Ms Butler said in a subsequent article :

We need to make parliament representative of wider society. One important part of this is to make parliament as open and accessible as possible.

Representation Means More Than Voting and Consultation

This is a crucial point. Vital in any inclusive political system is the ability for all groups in society to be represented and influence every aspect of Government policy, not just be called into committees when the members feel like it! Inclusion means having an input in the formulation of policy in the first place rather than being limited to commenting and voting on the agendas of others. In a review of political representation of women and BME communities Karen Bird quoted researcher Melissa Williams:

“…the only hope that marginalised group presence will have a lasting effect on policy outcomes is that decisions are based not only on the counting of votes but also on the sharing of reasons.”

The same argument, of course, applies to any other community group. But consider the figures. In the current House of Commons (April 2017) between 2 and 5 MPs are considered physically disabled, depending on the criteria applied.  Yet to be representative, on even the more narrow of definitions of diability, there would need to be 65 MPs.

Why are numbers important? Simply because the greater the numbers, the greater the possibility of electing an MP with the ability to become a Cabinet member or even Prime Minister.  Much publicity has, rightly, been made about our second female Prime Minister and the prospects for a Black or Asian Prime Minster in the foreseeable future.  But what about a Prime Minister who is blind, a wheelchair user or autistic? At this moment Britain is a political mess with a  leadership which is divisive, uncoordinated, incompetent and lacking in any inspiring vision. By effectively marginalising disabled people from elected office we may be rejecting the very person with such a unifying view.

Going Backwards Is Unacceptable in the 21st Century!

The fact that Dawn Butler made history is astonishing when you consider the career of the late Labour MP Jack Ashly.  Following a routine operation in December 1967 Ashley became profoundly deaf, continuing as an MP following a crash course in lip reading. At the time he was reported to be the only totally deaf lawmaker in the world. This was almost 50 years ago so the pressing question is why progress is taking so long. One reason of course is that in Parliamentary terms we are governed from a museum piece.  The ridiculous anachronistic House of Commons is so cramped that it cannot be equipped with modern IT facilities with capabilities such as real time transcription of debates.  Beyond the lack of physical capacity it would also require the behaviour of of some MPs to improve, judging by reports of bullying and barracking of disabled MPs which have emerged.

But we need to step further back to the actual selection of candidates for parliament in the first instance.  The difficulties were described by Labour Prospective Parliamentary Candidate Luke Akehurst in this article. In the recent past the Government has acknowledged the problems which disabled candidates face and in 2012 launched the £2.6m  Access to Elected Office Fund. This allowed disabled candidates to elected office a grant of between £250 and £40,000 to allow for expense such as travel and assistance but was inexplicably terminated when the current Government was elected in 2015.  As the number of MPs with disabilities has actually fallen in the current Parliament is could be argued that the fund was ineffective,  But while that review is being carried out the fund should be immediately reinstated.  Worse,  Parliament itself has recognised the problems it has in terms of justice, effectiveness and lack of legitimacy (something which we can all relate to!). In the 2008-2010 Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation it was stated that:

Disabled people and people from BME communities are more likely than the majority population to live on low incomes. These factors make it harder for individuals in these groups to compete effectively.

The overall effect is that:

Although individual MPs work hard to represent the breadth and depth of their constituents’ concerns and experiences, the absence of a wide cross-section of society in the House of Commons means that the legislature as a whole—perhaps through MPs’ ignorance, inattention or a collective failure of the imagination—overlooks the needs and concerns of specific groups. In these circumstances its decisions and actions may be considered less legitimate than they would otherwise be.

Coming from Parliament itself the accusations of inattention or a collective failure of the imagination is an indictment!

What has changed in the intervening 5 years since the fund was launched? Only that with  benefit cuts and austerity policies there are even fewer opportunities for disabled people to stand for Parliament. But there are other things we can do.  Parliament of course consists of two house with, by general consent, the House of Lords having even less of a claim to legitimacy and legislative justice than the Commons.  I have argued in a separate post for a complete replacement of the chamber by an accountable Senate, part of which would be appointed with the express intention of including representation for all sectors of society.

We need more MPs like Dawn Butler.  As I have pointed out, Parliament already recognises the problem so there is not even a defence of ignorance that steps are not being taken to improve the representation of disabled people. In fact in withdrawing the support fund they have kicked away the, albeit small, ladder which was in place. The feeling that we are governed largely by well-resourced, able-bodied rich white blokes (and a few women) is inescapable. The fact that they want to retain their cozy little club is understandable but inexcusable. It seems all too often that the political class need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world. So much for claims that it is a leader in the evolution of democratic ideals!

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