“Why do we often suggest our voices are loud enough to be heard without microphones?” Image: Leo Reynolds.

It was personal experience of the benefits system – during a four year period of ill-health – that got me involved in politics. The massive assaults on the welfare system from both Labour and the Coalition over the past decade made me realise how directly relevant the political system was to my life. The only party I could find with a decent disability policy was the Green Party (of England and Wales) – and so I signed myself up. Since becoming an active member, I have been fairly impressed with the Greens’ commitment to equality. They’re certainly not perfect, but they are generally moving in the right direction – and policies are often being added to or updated. Among many members there is a willingness to listen and often to actively try to improve. So that’s the good stuff.

But there is a long, long way to go. The lack of representation of people from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities and of women are just two issues that urgently need to be addressed. The general feel of the party as a majority white, middle class, educationally privileged space (just like most of mainstream politics) is also a big problem. The main issue that I want to focus on for this post, though, is the amount of disablism (discrimination against disabled people) still evident in the party.

Why do we arrange public events in rooms only accessible by steps? Why do we still use conference venues where access is technical rather than fully inclusive? Why do we often suggest our voices are loud enough to be heard without microphones, forgetting about hearing loops? Why do we make cheap jokes about opposition parties by questioning their mental health or intellectual ability? Why do we not challenge hostile attitudes to people with mental health issues or neurodiverse conditions? Why do we still produce over-academic policies without plain English or easy read alternatives? Why do we produce our information primarily in written form? Why do we not work harder to make sure what we say and how we act is inclusive?

I’ve witnessed all these things since I got active in the Greens two years ago. It’s even more worrying given that there is a significant section on disability equality issues already in the Green Party policy documents. Current Green Party disability policy states that “disabled people should be guaranteed the full enjoyment of rights and freedoms without discrimination” and “disabled people have a right to services and supports that enable them to participate as full members of our democratic society” (DY401 and DY406 , if anyone wants to look it up). Leaving aside the awkward ‘them and us’ feel of the last quote, these are strong statements of inclusion. This highlights that we can’t assume good policy will automatically lead to good practice – the Greens need to look beyond policy to achieve our aims.

You might want to argue that money is a problem for some of the access issues we come across. It’s true that access isn’t always cheap, but I don’t think that’s a valid excuse. If we want people from more diverse backgrounds to engage with the party, we need to be holding the door open ready, not waiting for someone to knock before we go hunting for the keys. It shouldn’t be acceptable for a party that has such strong policy on inclusion to hold events that automatically exclude people. Access considerations can become very complex, it’s true – but even at local party level, a minimum level of accessibility (step-free access, amplified sound, a working accessible toilet) should be seen as standard, not an afterthought. And we should be publishing information about the accessibility of our events every time and be upfront about making sure people can ask if they have additional needs also. Conference in particular should be a beacon of accessibility and inclusion. Segregated entrances should be history – having to enter through a back door is not exactly welcoming! At minimum, accessible routes should be signposted as clearly as those which involve steps or other inaccessible features. Asking a person on the front desk about accessibility should be met with clear information, not confusion and dismissal. Staff and volunteers should be aware that not everyone’s access needs are immediately visible.

I’m very aware that these points only touch the edges of a huge range of accessibility issues, but I hope it gives at least a basic idea of the things we need to be thinking about in terms of physical access. Things like the language we use and our behaviour are perhaps even more important to focus on – and thankfully money is not an issue here! This is about our attitudes, our words and the way we treat each other. Sometimes this is hard because certain terms are almost inbuilt into our society and vocabulary, or we personally don’t find a word offensive and find it difficult to see why someone else might. But if we are to treat each other without discrimination and as full members of society, then we need to aim for the highest standards.

For me, the issue here is care – caring for and being careful of each other, and ourselves. Careful in respect to the way we say things, caring for others in that if they find something offensive, we respect that even if it doesn’t personally offend us. The same applies to how we behave. Personally I’d like to see conversations about how the Green Party can be more inclusive always consider disability alongside gender, class or race. For me a key starting point is raising awareness and providing information. A lot of the time the issue is that we just don’t know, or just haven’t thought about it. Again, this isn’t an excuse – but it should be an easy thing to fix. What are your ideas?

Deborah Fenney Salkeld

About Deborah Fenney Salkeld

Debs is a Social Justice Co-Editor of Bright Green and writes on equality and social justice issues. Based in Leeds, she is currently pursuing a PhD exploring disabled people's access to sustainable lifestyles.