Is Public Office a Good Place for Disability Advocates?
Anytime disability issues make it into provincial or national conversations, the attention is welcomed. Some provinces and local governments give disability topics more attention than others. But a rarity in almost every government office throughout Canada is the actual presence of a person with disability.
According to a survey headed by a university professor in New Brunswick, Mario Levesque, it was found that “Out of a possible 2,084 [political] candidates over the last three elections in each province, 20 of them had a disability…roughly 0.01 per cent…” The political science professor went onto say, “That’s extremely low when you consider that 15 to 21 per cent of the Canadian population is disabled, depending on how disability is defined.”
The study, conducted at the request of Nova Scotia Disabled Persons Commission, was intended to find if there might be interest in a school specifically geared towards people with disabilities who want to enter public office. Unfortunately, Levesque found that a very small number of people with disabilities enter politics, but not because they don’t want to.
Even the most passionate advocate for the disability community would have a hard time running for political office. This is because very few politicians make it into office based on drive and perseverance alone. They also need capital, education, and, as the infamous phrase goes, the ability to “shake hands and kiss babies.” These key qualities of politicians are not easy to come by for the average person with disability who has probably faced barriers involving education, wealth and social inclusion. In other words, the reasons Canada needs people with disabilities in office are the very reasons many of them don’t make it onto the political scene.
Some provinces recognize the importance of seeing people with disabilities in public office and attempt to make the election process more “accessible.” For instance, Manitoba offers financial aid to candidates with disabilities who have 10 per cent of the vote by seeing that they have proper vehicles and interpreters to assist with their community outreach. However, even without offering any reimbursement, Levesque’s survey reported that Nova Scotia had the highest number of people with disabilities run for office. The survey also revealed that two of seven candidates who ran were elected. In British Colombia, where fewer politicians with disabilities ran, three were elected into office.
Throughout Canada, politicians with disabilities set good examples for people with disabilities and often directly or indirectly advocate for the disability community at large. For instance, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Honourable David C. Onley, who uses a wheelchair, promotes accessibility as “that which enables people to reach their full potential.” While he has many non-disability issues he must address, in promoting this inclusive definition of accessibility, he is constantly elevating the status of Canadians with disabilities.
Another example is Kent Hehr, an Alberta Liberal politician, who says, “[Disability] can actually be one of the things you showcase… When I go down the street oftentimes the people say, ‘Oh. There’s my MLA. He’s a wheelchair user.’ It’s easier for them to remember me because I’m a little different.”
People with disabilities must advocate for themselves in many sectors of life. For those who are passionate about self-advocacy, it is important that they have opportunities to advocate on larger platforms, if they want to.
Public office is a great place for people with disabilities. It allows disability advocacy to gain national attention and reminds the disability community that they can have an impact on society too.