Fletcher speaks during Question Period
Fletcher stands in the House of Commons
Demonstrating through action that "everything is possible"
By Garry Angus
On Dec. 8th, using a special wheelchair to elevate
himself to a standing position, Conservative MP and senior health critic
Steven Fletcher rose to address the House of Commons during question
period. It was a personal "first" for Fletcher and significant for
raising awareness of the ability of people with disabilities, and the
requirements for their active participation as full citizens.
Fletcher, who represents the Charleswood - St. James riding of Winnipeg,
was elected last June 28th, beating out former Winnipeg mayor
Glen Murray. Fletcher, a quadriplegic resulting from a 1996 car
accident, is the first person with a significant disability elected to
Canada's top government.
Commenting on this 'first' in an interview for the Disability News,
Fletcher says, " I'm amazed on the one hand, and then not on the other
hand… after going through the [electoral] process".
In the very competitive nomination process, Fletcher was faced with
tough questions about his ability to do the job from a wheelchair. "The
general feeling of the community out there was, "How is he going to get
there; how is he going to fly; how is he going to door knock?"" says
He found that Winnipeg major media outlets, radio and television, were
not wheelchair accessible, making it necessary for him to "give his
pitch" as he says, from phone or at a remote location.
" I had to demonstrate through action that everything was possible, "
Beating out the former Winnipeg mayor Murray sent Fletcher, with his
unique perspective, to Ottawa and the House of Commons - first and
foremost as the representative of his constituents and for issues
affecting all Canadians, not only people with disabilities, he said.
"I am not here and have refused to be the poster boy for disability. I
am the senior healthcare critic for the Conservative party, a very
important [role], and it touches every Canadian's life. I am not going
to be pigeonholed as the token guy in the chair, but as the guy who is
making a real and meaningful contribution to Canada, particularly in the
healthcare debate, and 'he happens to be in a wheelchair.' I think
that's a real paradigm shift for the Canadian public, and actually for
the people who elected me."
Fletcher was quick to point out that he is not the first person with a
disability elected to public office, but as a "high level quadriplegic",
he is definitely very visible. "Raising awareness," Fletcher said, is
the main impact his disability is having on the people he is
encountering in his new role.
"We have a situation where lawmakers and the media have just not been
exposed in any serious way to people with disabilities," Fletcher
stated, "which is interesting, with the symbiotic relationship between
the media and federal politicians.
"They meet for social functions. They deal with issues, but they haven't
really been exposed to people with disabilities. They haven't been aware
that events need to be wheelchair accessible; transportation is a major
issue; attendant care is a major issue.
"There are places in parliament that are not accessible, but they are
making it so. They have amended rules of the house so my healthcare aid,
which I require 24 hours a day, seven days a week, can sit with me in
the House of Commons."
When asked if he had particular goals with respect to healthcare and
people with disabilities,
Fletcher commented that he is a "big proponent of community living",
being faced with institutionalization himself after his injury, which,
"scared the be-Jesus out of me."
"I don't think in today's society that people should be faced with that
[institutionalization]," says Fletcher. "They should have the option to
take control of their own lives, and live in the community. Community
living is better for the individual for sure, better for their families
and in most cases-not all-it's better on the taxpayer too. That would be
something I would advocate for."
Fletcher said, "I must remind people with disabilities that in life you
can make good or bad choices. If you make a bad choice, with a
disability, that bad choice is just going to be amplified a thousand
times over. So make the best decisions possible all the time. Otherwise
the long-term impacts can be profound, and that goes for financial
decisions, educational decisions, social decisions, and so on.
"A lot of people with disabilities turn to substance abuse, but just
don't do it! You're going to pay for it 'big-time' in the long term."
Fletcher speculated that Canada will see more people with disabilities
in public office as attitudes change, and it would be difficult to argue
the position that a disability prevents someone from being a Member of
"I bring a perspective that may not have existed before," he said, "and
I'm looking forward to shaking things up a bit."