Above photo: Minister Stephanie Cadieux has been a BC Liberal MLA since 2009. Here she is speaking speech on pollution in english to the media during the ceremonial opening of the new accessible entrance to the BC Legislature in March, 2013.
People with disabilities are often defined by others solely by their disability. Whether this involves the stereotype of pity or of pedestal depends more on how the world views their accomplishments and less on individual characteristics. From personal experience as a professional with a disability, I know that I have at times been defined first by my disability and second by my professional abilities. There is certainly still a lot of misunderstanding about disability in general, a phenomenon which most people with disabilities have come across at some point.
Given the unfortunate perceptions still held by too many members of society about disability, I can certainly understand the desire of those in public office to avoid being seen as single-issue politicians. However, I also think that the recent election in BC gives us an opportunity to get disability issues on the agenda for the benefit of all members of society, and to do so in a light that recognizes everyone’s value, rather than focusing on deficits.
In fact, an effective focus on disability issues covers many of the other policy areas identified as important to British Columbians. Disability policy includes health, social services, education, employment, building codes, the environment, and many other issues already important to British Columbians. However, the connection is not always obvious to people outside the disability community. It will take strong leaders to make these arguments and that’s where our new MLAs have an opportunity.
As Michael Prince, University of Victoria professor in social policy, points out in his book Absent Citizens: Disability Politics and Policy in Canada, “An elected official with a disability, say a visible one, may treat this aspect of his or her identity as less significant than other qualities, and downplay the ‘otherness,’ wishing not to be pigeon-holed as a single issue politician or one-dimensional person.”
Prince continues by wondering, “Is this, then, a politically rational calculation, bearing in mind the continued dominance of ‘able-bodied normality’ and ambivalent attitudes toward disabilities in Canada?” This attitude perhaps makes sense if one keeps in mind what Prince notes on the same page in his book, that people with disabilities tend to vote in smaller numbers than do the able-bodied, creating the perception of a special interest group with less political voice.
With three MLAs, two of them new to provincial politics, now heading for the legislature, can we expect to see disability issues on the agenda? Prince points out in a recent email that having more MLAs with disabilities creates an increase in critical mass in government that “could offer some interesting opportunities”.
Michelle Stilwell is the new MLA for Parksville-Qualicum, With respect to the election of three MLAs with spinal cord injury, she writes that, “I believe this election is a reflection of a more sophisticated voter who is able to look beyond a disability and vote for an individual based on their abilities. I believe it speaks volumes for the positive change we continue to see in our perception of persons with disabilities. It demonstrates that there are opportunities for all British Columbians to affect positive change no matter what their circumstance.”
With respect to her role as an MLA, Stilwell writes that “I will continue to be an advocate for persons with disabilities, hopefully inspire those individuals and promote healthy active living. I believe a healthy active lifestyle nurtures the spirit and allows people to be their best.”
In terms of initiatives specific to people with disabilities, Stilwell writes that “my plans are to continue to work on behalf of my constituents and the rest of British Columbia to create positive change. This will include committee work and consultation that may result in changes to legislation.”
Paul Caune founded Civil Rights Now, a BC organization that lobbies for individualized funding and enhanced civil rights protection for people with disabilities. He argues that “it’s irrelevant whether or not a MLA has a disability. That does not determine if public policy which is in the public interest will be put into action. What determines [public policy] is if tough, honourable people with good ideas get elected into government and then put those ideas into action. It is the quality of the character and ideas of the citizen elected that matters, not their gender, religion, disability, party etc.”
Caune points out that his organization’s proposals have received support from a wide range of individuals and groups across party lines. He writes that, “none of these individuals are people with disabilities, none of these organizations are solely concerned with disabilities, and yet they recognize that putting CRN’s ideas into action is in the public interest.”
Giovanni Gallipoli, UBC Professor of Economics, has an interest in disability issues and observes that “personally, I think it is great news that the last round of elections saw new MLAs with disabilities accessing the local assembly and government. It is of crucial importance that people realize how disability is not an obstacle to perform even very demanding activities. Most important is that some adjustments can be made to allow people to perform at their best.”
Similarly, Tim Stainton, UBC Social Work Professor, points out that “clearly the presence of highly competent successful individuals with disabilities in the legislature, and I would expect in cabinet, is an important step in combating prejudice and discrimination against people with disabilities. As with all groups who have experienced oppression or marginalization such as people of colour or women, it is an important step to have members of these groups visible in positions of importance and power. It is also interesting to note that all three were elected with the right of centre party not traditionally associated with progressive social policy. All three of the elected MLAs are people who have excelled in their past endeavours, whether it be as athletes or politicians. I think if there is a danger it is that these three individuals become a stereotype for all persons with disabilities.”
Stainton goes on to write that, “As we know many people with disabilities do rely on significant support to be able to fully participate and there is a risk that a mindset of ‘well they could do it so what’s wrong with all these other people that they require all this state support’ could hamper progress in disability supports. Overall though it is a great result for the disability movement and having voices inside the halls of power who understand the challenges faced by people with disabilities is a valuable and meaningful step.”
In summary, then, it appears that most people believe that having MLAs with disabilities is a positive step in making people more aware of disability issues and the varying abilities of all. However, in addition to the concern noted by Tim about stereotyping people with disabilities as not needing help based on the success of our new MLAs, there is another problem that I can foresee. People promoting the disability agenda may be directed only to these three MLAs as being the experts in disability issues. While I think they certainly can and should play an essential role in developing services for people with disabilities, this role may be best served by working with other MLAs to develop awareness of how disability policy can have a positive impact on all of us.
Changing the discourse from disability as a special interest issue to one of universal importance is the single most important change I would like to see over the next few years. I know from my academic studies that attitudes about disability shift in a positive way when people have more exposure to disability; having three MLAs with disabilities is an opportunity for all of us to effect a widespread shift in disability attitudes that we could not hope to achieve individually.