Strathclyde Women's Week 2024Dr Stefanie Reher on researching disabled women's experiences in politics

Stefanie Reher, a Reader in Politics at Strathclyde, stands outside a University building

As part of Strathclyde Women's Week 2024, we are focusing on the work of Humanities & Social Sciences academics whose research relates particularly to the experiences of women and girls.

Dr Stefanie Reher is a Reader in Politics at the University of Strathclyde, working within the Department of Government & Public Policy. Dr Reher's research focuses on political representation, behaviour, and attitudes.

She is currently working on several projects about the representation of disabled people in politics. Last year - in collaboration with Prof. Elizabeth Evans of the University of Southampton - she published Gender, disability and political representation: understanding the experiences of disabled women in the European Journal of Politics and Gender.

We asked Dr Reher about the barriers disabled women face to participation in representative politics, the methods behind the research and what needs to be done to improve inclusion.


Tell us about the methods used in your research. How did you gather experiences of disabled women in politics?

Elizabeth and I started studying the barriers to elected office for disabled people five years ago, when we were commissioned to write a report on the topic for the UK Government Equalities Office.

We interviewed over 50 disabled people who had stood for office or had considered standing at any level of government in the UK, some of whom had gone on to serve as local Councillors or MPs. Political parties, and particularly the parties’ disability groups, and the Local Government Association helped us advertise our call for participants. We then used snowball sampling to identify further participants, and today we have conducted over 80 interviews, drawing on 41 interviews with disabled women in our article.

Disability is notoriously difficult to measure, as there is a strong subjective component to it; we therefore interviewed anyone who themselves identified as disabled and agreed to participate. Our interviewees had a wide variety of disability types, including visible and invisible disabilities, physical, sensory, and learning disabilities, as well as mental health conditions. 

Since the terminology used around disability can be perceived as sensitive, it was important to us to use the language chosen by the interviewees in the interview. We asked participants about their experiences of entering politics, the barriers they faced, and their views on the representation of disabled people in politics. In addition, we also attended a range of events organised for and by disabled people who were, or sought to become, engaged in politics, and observed the discussions. This included sessions by the organisation Elect Her, run specifically for disabled women interested in elected office.

How are existing barriers to getting into politics compounded for disabled women?

Getting into elected office is a big task for anyone: it usually involves becoming engaged in a local party and getting the party – or those who select the candidates – to support one’s nomination as a candidate. This requires time and energy, which both disabled people and women often have less to spare – disabled people already have to navigate a range of barriers in their everyday lives, and women still tend to do a disproportionate amount of caregiving and household work.

Both groups also often have fewer networks in politics, which can be crucial for support and guidance throughout the electoral and political representation process. Running an election campaign tends to further compound these issues: it takes time, energy, money, and support. Again, women and disabled have fewer financial means on average, and at the same time campaigning might be more expensive for them, for example due to childcare costs for women and the costs of travel, assistants (e.g. British Sign Language interpreters), and mobility aids or assistive technologies for disabled people.

While disabled candidates in Scotland have been able to apply for financial support to campaign on a ‘level playing field’ from the Access to Elected Office Fund Scotland since 2016, similar funds have been piloted in England and Wales but are as of yet not in place permanently – and, importantly, will not be for the upcoming general election. For many disabled women these various barriers compound, which means that they may often face higher barriers to elected office than men and non-disabled women.

Could you explain the key themes arising from research responses? What impact did this have on individuals?

We heard, particularly from disabled women, that their ability to meet the expectations of elected office was regularly questioned both implicitly and explicitly. Many reported having to work twice as hard to prove themselves as credible candidates. 

Moreover, many disabled women felt that they were being ‘othered’, meaning they were expected to simultaneously conform to the ideal stereotype of a politician – which tends to be a non-disabled middle-aged white male – while also being noticeably treated differently; for example, being excluded from events. Even initiatives focused on increasing the representation of women in politics often focus on particular ‘types’ of women, generally those representing the majority. For some participants, avoiding being othered meant having to “choose whether you were going to focus on women’s politics or disabled politics”, as doing both was perceived by others as ‘too much’.

Since disabled women do not look like those bodies that traditionally occupy positions of privilege and power in politics, and because there are still so few of them, some of our interviews felt 'hyper-visible’. As a result, they often felt intensely scrutinised and considered representatives of their entire group, further increasing the pressure on them.

The challenges can be slightly different for women (and others) with invisible disabilities, who may have to navigate questions and decisions around disclosure of medical information and invasive personal questions to a greater extent.

What can be done to help? How can the findings of this type of research contribute to greater inclusion in politics?

There are a number of take-aways from our research, but the most important one is that politics needs to become more accessible in order to provide adequate representation of the one in five people in the UK who are disabled.

We have found that disabled politicians are often more likely to voice the views of disabled citizens, and their participation in politics as elected representatives is seen as crucial by the disability community. To achieve this, it is important that parties become more aware of the ways in which politics can be inaccessible to many disabled people, and make systematic and concerted efforts to address them. This includes ensuring that party events are held in accessible spaces, starting selection processes early, reconsidering the suitability of how campaigns are traditionally run for a more diverse group candidates, and supporting individual candidates in tailoring their campaigns to their needs and circumstances – for example, finding alternatives to door-knocking or hustings.

Furthermore, any serious attempt to put disabled people on a ‘level playing field’ when it comes to standing for election needs to involve financial support. Among the various stakeholders we have talked to in our research there was general agreement that governments need to cover such costs, as parties have different levels of resources and because disabled candidates should not have to feel that they are taking resources away from other party activities or that their chances to be selected by their party depends on the adjustments they require.

A range of voices in politics and the third sector are calling for Access to Elected Office Funds to be installed on a permanent basis across the UK, and our research has contributed by showing how candidates used the fund and providing insights on best practice in the administrative process. 

Finally, institutional innovations such as job sharing and hybrid parliaments would particularly benefit both disabled people and women, and might help improve their representation in politics.