In News & Blog, Politics

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.

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Showing 12 comments
  • Esteban

    Well this is certainly an interesting article and only time will tell what impact these 3 MLA’s will have on social issues as they relate to disability. In my view, it is an expectation. Why wouldn’t they take up the cause? We need their influence in the halls of power to combat rampant ableism. Do we really want these MLA’s to run in the opposite direction of disability issues and join the ranks of the ableist’s who don’t give a crap about the needs of people with disabilities. Sorry, but we already have enough ambivialence in government. This Liberal government have decimated social programs and reduced funding to non profit organizations so much so that many organizations struggle to keep programs running and store front offices from closing. So get with it Sam, Michelle and Stephanie! The least you can do is advocate for disability reform AS EQUALLY as you advocate for your other constituents and their issues. Let’s be clear here..I am not talking about throwing a few more dollars at this program or that program in order to garner a photo op. I am talking about change making policies and legislation around the rights of people with disabilities, social programs, building code and infrastruture guidelines as they pertain to public and private domain. Your photo op at the local chili cook off, showing how normal you are, isn’t going to cut it.
    So can we expect to see disabiltiy issues on the agenda? I would be encouraged to see this. I mostly expect to see our recently elected MLA’s get whipped back into line should they broach any topic outside of the party line.

    • Randy Marchant

      Very well said

  • Caroline Mavridis

    I would like to see more support for people who have developmental disability and not have an MLA say oh I know what they are going through because they have a physical disability . I am not saying this to be disrespectful, I am saying this because I heard a comment like this in question period this past winter or spring when I was there with my twin sons. The comment was I know exactly what families are going through because I have a disability as well. But the reality is this person did not because this person has a job, pension a home and support staff at work to help do the job they have. As a parent of two adults both with a developmental disability I am limited in what I can do for work because I need to care for my sons which I love doing. But I unfortunately need tax payers help to pay for the supports I need to have my sons attend a day program once they graduate from high school so I can continue to work. With out that support I would not be able to work, keep a roof over our heads and I do not have a pension at the end of all this So reality is if a MLA says something like I know exactly what families are going through, you really do not unless you are actually in that families shoes. Again I am not being disrespectful but please do not say you know just because you have a physical disability and you are able to work and you do get support in your work place to do your job. CLBC wants everyone who has a developmental disability to work but there is not enough money in place to support a lot of the people in a work enviroment. I could go on and on but I wont.
    Thank you for listening

  • Esteban

    Until people with disabilities are seen as something other than “users” rather than contributors I am not holding my breath. People with disabilites are too passive to speak up. We are a generally unemployed demographic, non tax paying group that use an inordinate amount of resources from health care to other social services. We accept the bones we are thrown and expect organizations like this one and others to do our talking for us. Polititians know we have no clout, no political influence which makes it easy for them to dismiss disability issues with a wave of a hand.

  • Sarah Smith

    people needs to valu all of the disabled and let us have direct our own care Access to physio adn other rehabillitation so we can get better and work more. Do the mla’s have this things? i bet they do

  • Brenda

    As a Person With Disability, too ill to take advantage of the get back to work incentive, I have given up hope that this government will do anything to raise support up to anywhere near the poverty level. The Liberal Government does not care about disabled people. They do not care about poverty reduction. They do not care that because of the increases in hydro, we cannot afford to eat. At least the NDP promised a raise of $25 a month. From Christy we can expect nothing more as the price of everything keeps climbing. It is a sad time for the disabled in BC.

  • David

    Nice article – you may want to correct the info in the photo caption – Stephanie Cadieux has been an MLA for four years (since 2009) in Surrey-Panorama. She’s just been elected for the first time in Surrey-Cloverdale.

    • Candice Vallantin

      Ooops! That’s my bad. Thanks for catching that David.

  • Esteban

    Yes the NDP promised a $25.00 a month increase to PWD benefits. This is a pittance but sadly would of made a huge difference for people on PWD.
    Here are a couple of fun facts for you. In 2007 the Liberal Government changed the pension rule to allow a 1 dollar contribution to the MLA pension fund to be matched by a tax payer contribution of 4 dollars, up from a 1 to 1 ratio. The 21 retiring MLA’s are set to collect 20.8 million dollars in pension payouts. Most working people anywhere do not get close to an employer contributing that ratio of money. While in office MLA’s get a:
    Monthly allowance of 1000.00 no reciepts required
    Per diem 61.00 per day no reciepts required
    All travel expenses paid for
    And while a lot of these expenses are a legitimate cost of doing business it’s a pretty hard pill to swallow for people on social assistance to hear that their is no increase in benefits because the government needs to reign in spending, get the economy moving first etc.
    Living allowance – 63 MlA’s billed the tax payer 366,000 for a 6 month period.
    But wait, the MLA’s will also get a:
    Transition allowance
    Retraining Funds
    Retain their 102,00.00 per year salary from 4 – 15 months while they find work
    These additiional benefits will push the the taxpayers bill up as high as 50 million for these retiring MLA’s.

    Now let’s look at life for someone recieving a disability benefit in BC. A person recieving a disability benefit gets 906.00 per month or 10,872 per year. The poverty line = 19,342.
    The MLA’s monthly living allowance 1000.00 (no receipts required) alone exceeds the income of a person recieving disability benefits in this province.
    A simple Google search “MLA pensions in BC” will find all the above information for you.
    So the Liberal litany of getting the fiscal house in order before we can strengthen social programs appears not to apply when the benefit goes to the folks writing the cheques.

  • Elaine Willis

    First, someone with a disability in not always a disability activist. I think it also of interest that each of the MLA’s also has a spinal cord inujury. When one examines the “heirarchy of disability”, or the perceived prejudice about the capabilities of persons with disabilities, those with spinal cord injuries rate fairly well. Speech impairment, physical deformity, visual impairment…these are much more apt to be barriers to access to employment, especially at decision-making levels. We have a long way to go. When Sam Sullivan was the mayor of Vancouver, he was well-protected from the public when a disability advocate’s voice was needed. My greatest worry is that these three MLA’s sit on the wrong side of the house no matter what their personal thoughts may be. Having a disability does not automatically give one insight into disability issues, just as being a woman does not make one a feminist.

  • Esteban

    “Having a disability does not automatically give one insight into disability issues, just as being a woman does not make one a feminist.”
    I agree with this. We do not expect the majority of people in the everyday world to rise up and advocate their particular issues however this needs to be put into context. We DO expect a different level of behaviour, attitude and accountability from people depending on their profession or social status..such as professional athletes, law enforcement and case in point: polititians. It is within this context that I believe the expectation should be more acute. It would be unconscionable to have 3 MLA’s with disabilities not advancing the disability agenda. I think having a disability DOES give one insight into disability issues and I think being a woman does give insight into feminist issues, sadly however, I agree that it does not MAKE one a disability advocate or feminist.

  • James Mansell

    I would like to know what they are going to do to help all the disabled workers who’s lives are being ruined by Worksafebc ?  When will our governments stop the atrocities carried out by worksafebc on our injured and disabled workers ?  They claim to want to promote healthy lifestyles for the disabled yet they continue to allow Worksafebc to cause mental and financial tourcher on our disabled workers pushing so many to commit suicide… Shame Shame Shame on our governments for allowing this to continue  !!!
    #ChristyClark #BillRoutley  #MikeFarnworth #ElizabethMay #HUMANRIGHTSTRIBUNAL #BCOmbudsperson #BCOmbudsman #BCLegislature  #GlobalBC #JohnHorgan #CKNW #CANADIANGOVERMENTS #BritishColumbiaMLA #JustinTrudeau #ShirleyBond #AdrianDix #CBC #AWCBC  #WorkSafeBC #TriCityMentalHealth

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