Dr Stefanie Reher, Lecturer and Chancellor's Fellow in the School of Government & Public Policy, has been awarded a New Investigator Grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), worth £283,770, for her project 'How do voters perceive disabled candidates?'
Whilst almost 1 in 5 people in the UK and around the world are disabled, the numbers are generally much lower among politicians. As a consequence of this discrepancy, policies might inadequately represent the interests of disabled people, and they may feel ignored by politicians and discouraged from engaging with politics. The causes for this under-representation are complex and include a range of barriers, which Dr Reher has explored in a recent project for the UK Government Equalities Office together with Dr Elizabeth Evans (Goldsmiths University of London). They interviewed 50 disabled representatives, candidates, and those who considered standing for office across the UK and found that most had faced a variety of barriers at different stages of the process, from becoming engaged and standing for selection to conducting the tasks of elected representatives. The barriers include problems like inaccessible venues or materials, a lack of financial support for assistive technology or transport, as well as negative attitudes by parties and voters.
Dr Reher’s new ESRC project focuses on voters’ evaluations of disabled candidates and politicians and asks whether voters perceive them differently from non-disabled politicians. It examine how voters perceive candidates’ personality traits and their political preferences and policy concerns and whether, as a result, (some) voters are more or less likely to support disabled candidates in elections. The project will explore these questions with respect to different disability types as well as the intersections of disability and other characteristics, such as gender. Voters’ perceptions and views will be measured through online survey experiments, in which respondents are presented with descriptions or pictures of fictional candidates with varying characteristics and asked to evaluate them. The survey experiments will be conducted in the UK, Germany and Finland – three countries with different electoral systems and attitudes towards disability. The project will last three years, starting in December 2019, and includes a research visit in Helsinki. The research will generate valuable insights not only for academics interested electoral behaviour or disability stereotypes, but also for disabled (aspiring) politicians, political parties, and policy-makers seeking to address the under-representation of disabled people in politics.