TRAILBLAZER: Westminster can be challenging for disabled parliamentarians – but the real problems exist away from the House
I joined the House of Lords in March 2010 and counted myself lucky that I was introduced just before the general election mostly because I had a decent period of time to find my way around the building.
There are many things that don’t make a lot of sense. Why Committee Room 10A is the West Front rather on the Committee Corridor is not something anyone (yet) has been able to answer. There are many things that don’t necessarily have a reason behind it, apart from history.
When asked what it is like to be a disabled parliamentarian the first thing I think about is access, because it has such a big impact on my daily life. I don’t know what it is like to be a non-disabled peer but when I compare it to my working life outside Parliament, this place is a dream. One job I had, there was no lift and my office was upstairs. I had to get out of my chair, crawl up the stairs and drag my chair up and then bounce down backwards in my chair. Not the most convenient not least because there were no toilets upstairs and meetings and drinks had to be well timed to save me having to do it more than twice a day.
The beautiful (and probably) expensive carpets in Parliament are what I imagine walking through sand is like, but it probably helps to keep a level of fitness. I also only know the accessible routes around the building, which are rarely the most direct route, but I can get to just about every place that I need to be, even if it takes me longer, and there have been concerted attempts to improve access, and requests are listened to.
However, the biggest challenge I have is the way the Chamber is set up, and that I can’t sit with my fellow crossbenchers, and there is not a huge amount of space for wheelchair users to sit. I have had to tag in and out on occasion in order to speak. I might be in the Chamber, but I don’t have the same opportunity as anyone who can walk. The reality is that there is not an easy solution. It makes it much harder to connect to other people, and have the quiet conversations that make a difference to my work. However, I also count myself privileged to be a crossbencher, as both the best and worst thing about it is that no one tells me how to vote. I also count myself lucky in that moving from sport to politics is not the biggest transition. There is a reasonable amount of politics in sport, and far more than most people realise. “Sportwashing” and soft politics are on the edges of the debate about the situation in Ukraine.
As an athlete I trained twice a day, six days a week and 50 weeks of the year. My career on the track which delivered 16 medals was only 20 minutes of my life. There is enough similarity in that you spend a lot of time researching and writing speeches for the couple of minutes that you get to try and take people with you. Probably the most useful thing I learnt was to not be afraid to ask questions.
On a positive not I have not experienced misogyny and only rare moments of ableism which I can’t say for the outside world. When you are a ‘Peer’ most people treat you like a ‘peer’ and they listen to what you say, even if they don’t agree with you.
Baroness Grey-Thompson is a crossbench peer in the House of Lords.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.