Missing in Action: Disability Policy and Persons with Disabilities

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Political News Tuesday, December 08, 2015 View Count = 2452

Missing in Action: Disability Policy and Persons with Disabilities

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Election 360 Logo 3“Missing in Action: Disability Policy and Persons with Disabilities” is written by Mario Levesque from Mount Allison University.

Within just 96 hours of October's federal election, Mario Levesque and 65 other leading thinkers and political scientists in Canada each wrote a short, snappy analysis of the election. Never before have Canadian experts collaborated to produce such a complete—and fast—response to an election. Together with UBC Press, Samara is proud to bring you all 57 articles as part of the "Election 2015" blog series, the definitive look at all angles of the 42nd general election.  

Watch this space to get all the analyses. For a complete list of academics involved, click here

Why such a lack of media coverage and interest in disability candidates and issues in the 2015 election? Surely disability is a significant issue. Disability’s absence was interesting given attention to questions of gender parity among candidates both pre-election and post-election. A similar situation unfolded in regards to visible minority candidates, again both pre-campaign and post-campaign. But where was disability?

To be sure, there were few candidates with disabilities: just 14 out of a possible 1,430 candidates. That is about 1% of the total number of candidates, a gross underrepresentation, given that up to 14% of the Canadian population identifies as having a disability. Certainly, if we are concerned about the state of our democracy and that ensuring different voices are heard, the lack of candidates with disabilities is of concern and is itself worthy of media coverage. Yet, why the silence on the lack of candidates?

It was not for a lack of quality candidates or competitive races. For example, Steven Fletcher, the long-time Conservative MP (since 2004) and former cabinet minister, was defeated in a tight race in Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley. While progressive as an MP on disability issues when in office, such issues never formed a big part of his re-election bid which instead broadly focused on the economy. This was significant given the mid-campaign release of his new book, Master of My Fate, detailing his efforts to legalize physician assisted suicide in Canada, which was well covered by the media.

Two other campaigns that received notable media attention were for Liberal candidates Kent Hehr (Calgary Centre) and Carla Qualtrough (Delta). For Hehr, the two-term Alberta Liberal MLA, the focus was on trying to become the first Calgary Liberal MP elected in over four decades. His campaign centred on normative issues such as job creation. The plan worked as Hehr won by less than 1,000 votes. For Qualtrough, a high profile human rights lawyer and disability activist, her successful campaign also followed a similar pattern of focusing narrowly on economic issues.

What can be seen is that candidates with disabilities themselves minimize disability issues so as not to be defined by them, a point that Fletcher readily admits. Fair enough. But it also points to persistent issues of stigma and discrimination in society against persons with disabilities.

From a democratic perspective, the limited media coverage on the few candidates with disabilities is troubling given the relative indifference in media attention to disability issues. Where was the media coverage on the lack of Conservative action on their proposed 2006 National Disability Act? The same can be said to the limited mediatization of the Liberal, NDP and Green party commitments to enact a Canadians with Disabilities Act. The NDP went the furthest in publishing a four page open letter from their leader, Tom Mulcair, on their positions and support for Canadians living with disabilities. Yet again, the silence from the media was deafening on this major policy stand. Only one media article by Andre Picard exists on the subject, a fact which led CBC radio’s Michael Enright to conclude that disabled Canadians were invisible in the 2015 election.

To be fair, media coverage of disability did exist but it was limited to the (in)accessibility of polling stations. On this, the media had plenty to say revealing partially or fully inaccessible polling stations, as well as the voting accommodations provided for those in need. The quantity and depth of this coverage was interesting given that the media sought out disability organizations such as the Council of Canadians with Disabilities for comments. Yet the campaigns for a Canadians with Disabilities Act by these same organizations were ignored by the media, thus revealing a media bias for a charity or medical model of disability.

Simply put, the media lacks an understanding of disability issues and appear scared to venture out to report on them or to provide informed comments. This suggests that if progress on disability issues is to be made, disability organizations need to focus efforts on educating the media and policy makers alike. Perhaps then the disability voice will be able to contribute to building a healthy democracy.

Mario LevesqueMario Levesque researches disability policy in Canada including political participation, labour market programming, and transit issues for persons with disabilities. He has published widely on the subject including, with Peter Graefe, “‘Not Good Enough’: Canada’s Stalled Disability Policy,” in How Ottawa Spends, 2013-14, Bruce Doern and Chris Stoney, eds. (2013) and “Assessing the Ability of Disability Organizations: An Interprovincial Comparative Perspective,” Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research 3, no. 2 (2012). His most recent article “Searching for Persons with Disabilities in Canadian Provincial Office,” Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, is forthcoming.

You can also find this article in the e-book Canadian Election Analysis 2015: Communication, Strategy, and Democracy, which is available for download on UBC Press's website

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