Fletcher speaks during Question Period

photo: Michelle Kittelberg

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 Fletcher.

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, " Fletcher said.

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 Parliament.

"I bring a perspective that may not have existed before," he said, "and I'm looking forward to shaking things up a bit."


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