Edinburgh Council: As a disabled woman, I expected problems but it was just 16 days after being elected as a councillor that I was forced to seek legal advice – Kayleigh O’Neill

When I was elected to Edinburgh Council, I knew as a disabled woman I would come across many barriers throughout my term.

Edinburgh's City Chambers are as iconic as they are inaccessible for many
Edinburgh's City Chambers are as iconic as they are inaccessible for many

However, I was surprised at how many barriers came from attitudes towards inclusion and accessibility in my first few weeks.

I was so proud and pleased when I was elected on May 5 as the first Scottish Green for Forth Ward, on my message of improving accessibility, well-being and pushing for city-wide change to tackle the climate crisis.

On my 16th day in the council, I had to start the process of seeking legal advice as my accessibility needs were being overlooked by political bickering.

I sincerely believed, upon clarifying my own and other Green members’ requirements, that we would be allocated the office which was best suited for us. This was sadly not the case.

I’m aware of the line of work I am now in, and my shock is not from naivety – politics comes into so many issues, even accessible room allocations. My shock stems from the explicit ableism and unlawful treatment of disabled people that sits within the council’s culture.

Throughout my whole induction period, I spent more time teaching members, executives and officers about best practice for inclusion, instead of making the most of the learning and social aspects of the month.

I should not have needed to consult with lawyers, architects and national policy makers to figure out how to get the support that was needed. But this is the reality of being a disabled person in politics.

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The City Chambers are as iconic as they are inaccessible for many. Measures like hybrid meetings and more information available online help to make the council more accessible, however these measures need to stay to remain useful for all.

This emotional and physical labour comes after an already hectic campaign period where I was often pushed to my mental and physical limits. Anyone who has taken part in an election campaign knows that it is fast-paced and reliant on mountains of enthusiasm from as many people as possible. For many this is extremely inaccessible, so it answers why we see an under-representation of minority groups in all levels of politics.

A phrase that I keep finding myself saying in the face of ableism is this: “At least, hopefully, it will be easier for the next person.” I say it with an insecure laugh and my fingers crossed because I know that the next person to come along may not be for another ten to 20 years, and they could have totally different needs that are overlooked. The cycle continues, and I think it will take a lot of work and collaboration to break.

To quote my parliament colleague Lorna Slater’s first chamber speech, “I have hope. When we change who is making decisions, we change outcomes. I have hope even in these difficult times. We need to work in the spirit of cooperation and across party lines to make the kind of transformative changes that are needed.”

I am looking forward to the next five years. Going forward I sincerely hope that accessibility and inclusion will come before politics, and when it does not, I will not be afraid to advocate for our rights.

Kayleigh O’Neill is Scottish Green Party councillor for Forth ward