Commonwealth Parliamentary Association colleagues stand next to red banner of mission statement. Credit: Commonwealth Parliamentary Association

The global network making parliaments more accessible

Since its inception three years ago, the Commonwealth Parliamentarians with Disabilities network has been shifting the dial to make parliaments more inclusive.

Democracies are only truly effective when all citizens can fully and equally participate. The Commonwealth Parliamentarians with Disabilities (CPwD) network, a global initiative from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA), is helping to realise this vision. The network stands as a testament to progress, inclusivity and empowerment in parliamentary affairs.

By providing a platform for parliamentarians with disabilities to unite, collaborate and advocate for both their rights and the rights of their constituents, the CPwD network has fostered a dialogue of shared experience between lawmakers on how to improve the inclusivity of the legislatures they contribute to.

The network’s aims are to:

  • Improve the accessibility of Commonwealth parliaments to people with disabilities.
  • Increase the representation of people with disabilities in Commonwealth parliaments.
  • Encourage parliaments to pass inclusive legislation for people with disabilities for the benefit of disabled citizens.

The idea for the network formed in 2017 when the CPA hosted the first Conference for Parliamentarians with Disabilities in Nova Scotia, Canada. This landmark event convened over 50 Commonwealth parliamentary officials and parliamentarians with disabilities.

The network was formally established in 2020, with both an elected chairperson and a board of ‘regional champions’. The current network chairperson is Hon. Laura Kanushu, a Ugandan MP who has served in the position since August 2022 and is the founder of Legal Action for Persons with Disabilities Uganda.

The board’s regional champions are six MPs from Australia, Fiji, Kenya, Malaysia, Trinidad and Tobago and the UK who help to determine the future direction of the network, enhance its advocacy and spread the word about its activities.

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Breaking new ground on disabled access

Since its inception, the CPwD network has broken new ground by developing tools, guidance, and most crucially funding, to make parliaments and other civic spaces more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities.

In 2020, under the auspices of the CPwD network, the CPA released its Disability Inclusive Communications Guidelines, which include toolkits on the Facilities of Inclusion and Linguistic Principles, designed to improve the way parliaments communicate with people with disabilities.

In 2021, the network established the Capital Investment Fund. The £60,000 fund supports initiatives across the Commonwealth that make parliaments more inclusive for people with disabilities. In 2022, for example, a proposal from the Jamaican parliament was approved by the fund that will ensure people with disabilities are able to physically attend and meaningfully participate in the space through a range of adaptations, such as bathrooms reconfigured to accommodate wheelchair users, mobile stair climbers, and a range of adjustments for people who are blind or visually impaired.

The fund has also been used to support accessibility audits, the first step to making a space inclusive for people with disabilities, such as that conducted by Tynwald, the legislature of the Isle of Man.

In 2022, the network produced the free online course Making Parliaments Accessible to Persons with Disabilities, an excellent resource for parliamentarians, parliamentary staff and anyone interested in learning how their institution could be made more accessible to people with disabilities. Topics include the importance of accessibility for an inclusive world, what it means for a parliament to be accessible, how to make parliamentary buildings accessible, communication strategies, and scaling up accessibility beyond parliament.

It is only through disability-led initiatives such as the CPwD network that people with disabilities will gain the civic and political representation to which they are entitled, and which will make all of our democracies, and our societies, stronger.