Steven Fletcher is the first permanently disabled person to have been elected to the Canadian Parliament, where he served four terms from 2004 to 2015, and the first permanently disabled federal cabinet minister. He was left a quadriplegic at the age of 23 after an automobile collision with a moose. He resides in Manitoba and is the principal of Fletcher Focus International.
The federal government has recognized that Canadians with disabilities are among the many who desperately need help during the pandemic. In July, Ottawa announced a one-time $600 payment to Canadians with disabilities, helping defray the costs associated with COVID-19; this policy received royal assent last week.
But this is inadequate, Al Etmanski and Kathleen O’Grady argued in a recent Globe and Mail opinion piece. It is time to unify the disability movement – in the mode of #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter – so that it can push with greater force “to influence decisions in cabinet or the Prime Minister’s Office” under a “common vision.”
This is a well-intentioned argument, and the authors raised many urgent issues. Notably, there is truth in their argument that systemic disability discrimination is baked into society with the false idea that “disabled people are unworthy.” As a wheelchair user, I continue to be boggled by the number of people who assume that people like me have cognitive or hearing problems; it continues to be a shock how many unnecessary curbs, stairs, and other barriers continue to exist, even though they could be easily dealt with.
But a united disability movement may be a bridge too far. Agitating this way would be to play a kind of identity politics that has many drawbacks, not the least of which is that it might ignore the fact there is no clear single definition of disability, nor collective agreement among people with disabilities. Treating everyone as individuals, and not as a collective, has worked much better in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. The range of disability is just too great, and the political opinions and wider interests of people with disabilities too varied, for a monolithic approach.
Consider the five fundamental human senses, for instance. Lacking one of them should be straightforwardly judged a disability, right? But while complete blindness is, in my view, a disability, the CNIB Foundation website declares that “people who are blind can do almost anything. They just do it differently.” It also seems reasonable to say that someone who is completely deaf is disabled, but many people who are completely deaf would disagree with that characterization; as is the case with sight, there is a spectrum on hearing. On the other hand, someone without taste or smell likely does not rise to the level of disability. And the sense of touch is difficult to conceptualize, as we are inherently touchy-feely creatures, though it may not feel essential; as a complete quadriplegic myself, however, I cannot feel anything below my shoulders and cannot move anything below my neck, and as a result, I cannot do any of the activities of daily living and require 24-hour caregivers wherever I go.
And is someone who has an amputation from the knee down on one leg disabled? How about two legs? How about an arm? Most of those individuals would certainly feel that they have a disability. But with advances in modern prosthetics, Canada Revenue Agency and Canada Pension Plan disability benefits may not see it that way. And definitions matter, especially in law.
I’ve seen the downsides of the collectivist approach first-hand in my time in federal politics. When the question of medical assistance in dying (MAID) arrived at the Supreme Court of Canada in 2015, the majority of organizations who claim to represent persons with disabilities warned the Supreme Court of Canada that they feared it would create a “slippery slope” to more significant harms to vulnerable populations. I, on the other hand, had spent years considering MAID through an individualist lens of self-determination, hoping to empower people with disabilities and ailments as much as possible through private member’s bills that aimed to establish strict safeguards to protect the vulnerable, while allowing competent adults to seek MAID. Despite the united legislative front against my efforts presented by every one of Canada’s political parties – including, ironically, the Conservative Party, even though its opposition would have allowed governments to overtake individual rights and tell people what they can and cannot do with their lives – the Supreme Court would go on to use much of the wording of my bills in its decision to strike down the legal prohibition against MAID.
The collectivist and individualist approaches each have their strengths and weaknesses. But it is a fundamental principle of classic liberal democracy that an individual should have the freedom to control one’s own body, and to be the master of one’s own fate, regardless of barriers or paternalistic attitudes. We are each a minority of one, and in many cases, we should agitate as such.
To be sure, people with disabilities need to be seen and need to be more involved in the political process. Most reasonable people are supportive once they become familiar with Canadians with disabilities and become educated about systemic barriers. And while it was clear that the vast majority of people in Ottawa, from politicians to media to civil servants to the common person, had no idea about quadriplegia – why would they, when I had no idea before my accident at 23? – they were accepting of me as I was. However, while Carla Qualtrough, the federal Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, is a Canadian with a disability – and she is, I am sure, a very competent person – it should be noted that having a disability in itself does not make one qualified to deeply understand all disabilities and needs. To improve the lives of people with disabilities, we need to focus on results of public policy, rather than on some credential alone.
In my first of four election campaigns for a federal seat, I did not raise the issue of disability unless I was asked. That was because I wanted to show that people are multifaceted individuals, and that more than one issue generally animates a given person’s decision-making. This is a major part of my own worldview, at least. And that’s why I believe Canadians with disabilities should avoid uniting into a singular political movement: The individual must always be recognized, so that the solution lies in their ability to reach their full potential. After all, Western liberal democracies have long recognized the rights and responsibilities of individuals, at great cost – and artificially constructed collective identities have rarely led to desired results.
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