The Process of Politics


Throughout the country, people with disabilities in the social service system are punished for working, surrounded by a web of disincentives so destructive that large numbers of us are now unemployed and afraid to work. Meanwhile, our governments, with a singular focus on cost savings, churn out a steady stream of inappropriate and impossible employment schemes, taking those who have lived for years in demoralizing idleness and throwing them into full-time work.

While visible infrastructure has improved, leading the public to believe people with disabilities are being accommodated, in communities throughout the country we have to wait for days to book transportation. In Toronto, the largest city in Canada, people like me who want to do business there must hire our own full-time car and driver because we cannot get a wheelchair-accessible taxi!

No group of people has more to gain or lose from politics than people with disabilities. Despite this, we are noticeably absent from the political arena. If we want to carve out a place for ourselves in society, we need to participate in the political life of our community. Doug Mowat, Canada’s first quadriplegic politician, once told me, “When you approach the door of government, it is always better to open it from the inside.”

The Philia Project is a dialogue on citizenship. We believe that our own sense of citizenship is enhanced through the contributions we make in our unique ways to the well-being of others. We believe that society needs to recognize, facilitate and welcome the varied forms of contributions made by people with disabilities. In this article, I share some of my thoughts on how we can contribute to the political life of this country and call all citizens to action.

Politics is the process of making decisions that govern the areas of our lives that we share in common. In democracy, political participation is not only an opportunity available to all, it is a solemn obligation that is required for the system to work. And it is one of the most powerful ways to assert ourselves as full citizens.

So what are some of the many ways we can get involved in politics? The politics of government is not the only way communities derive their leadership. Non-profit groups offer opportunities for political leadership that govern certain aspects of the community. Special-interest advocacy groups are one form of non-profit organization that has profound effects on political decision-making and is a powerful way of exerting citizenship. Many of our political leaders learn their skills through extensive involvement in these smaller organizations. It is an excellent way to build skills and capacities as citizens and to learn the responsibilities of leadership.

One of the basic ways we contribute to community through the politics of government is by voting at election time. Just showing up at a polling station can be a strong message in itself, but you must also be an informed voter. As someone who has watched the “business” of collecting votes at election time, I can confirm that strategies of negative advertising and shallow publicity stunts are not aimed at informed voters but at those who have not taken the time to understand what is important. Your responsibility as a citizen who votes is to become informed. We need to choose leaders who not only say the right things about issues at election time, but who have the right personal values and skills as well.

Another important way of participating in political leadership is by sitting on committees formed by government to look at specific issues. Does your community have a mayor’s advisory committee on disability issues?

Another useful form of political participation is personal lobbying — writing to your local politician and giving your feedback. Letters have a bigger impact than you think. Write when you feel strongly about something!

But if you want to really get serious about politics, join and volunteer for a political party. You will be amazed at what you learn, whom you meet and how much influence you have. Why is this?

When you vote at election time, your vote may be one among 50,000. When you vote at a party nomination meeting, your vote might be one among 200. You can have more of an impact at the riding level than at election time. If people with disabilities were visible members of political parties across the country, decision makers would take note of our presence and the issues we represent and things would improve. Get involved!

Finally, one of the most challenging and rewarding ways of making a contribution to the political life of the community is by becoming a candidate in an election. But it can also be very stressful.

I found the decision to enter politics as a candidate difficult. My work in the non-profit sector was hard but rewarding and the media, if they ever featured me, were very sympathetic. In that sector, you work hard to improve people’s lives, so the media and the public aren’t quick to criticize you. But once you enter politics and become allied with a political party, you are immediately disliked by a large part of the population. Suddenly, your actions and motives are brought into question while even the most intimate details of your life become public property.

The stakes are high, so politics can be nasty. Some people will do almost anything to gain the advantage. Think of politics as non-violent, rule-based warfare. What we used to accomplish in olden days by killing and intimidating each other, we now accomplish through this marvellous institution of political democracy.

However, I believe that when people with disabilities take their place in the political life of our communities, the values and understanding we bring will change and strengthen the system. One of our greatest challenges will be to maintain these values and not exchange them as a price of political investment.

One of the surprises of being in politics is that what you say becomes very important to people. Before entering politics, you can say what you want, no matter how inaccurate or insensitive, and generally get away with it. Once in the political spotlight, you can destroy livelihoods, divide communities, cause personal distress in others by making the same comments. By the same token, your words can edify, heal and guide whole communities through difficult situations. The responsibilities of leadership can discipline you into testing each word and thought, thereby ensuring you mean what you say.

Although there are benefits to being aligned with a political party, there are drawbacks as well. In politics, when you strongly endorse a view that your political party decides it cannot support, you can find yourself in the difficult position of not supporting your advocates, or else jeopardizing your chances of being effective in the future. As much as a politician may want to single-mindedly promote one agenda, a good politician recognizes they must act in the interest of all citizens. Politics requires compromise between various interest groups, and a successful politician will try not to lose credibility by isolating their position, recognizing instead what is possible and what is not and aligning with factions to develop support. It is important to take a long view when it comes to creating agendas.

For this reason alone, having people with a disability elected to office doesn’t mean we need fewer independent advocacy groups. These groups are needed more so than ever. There is a certain dynamic in government that is fundamentally opposed to change — especially change that has the potential to upset constituents. Paradoxically, good government often requires upsetting people. It is at the point of instigating change that independent advocacy groups are needed to keep the pressure on. Because government is averse to unhappy people, the vocal clamour of external groups and individuals are essential allies for the politician seeking social change.

The medium is the message, and despite the constraints of politics, the fact that you are a person with a disability in a position of power changes the behaviour of staff and others. Recommendations that don’t take disability into consideration simply don’t get brought forward anymore.

How can we address the under-representation of people with disabilities in the political system? First, all of us need to make the effort and start clamouring to get in. Second, political parties must become more aware of their barriers to our participation, and actively work to remove them.

We all recognize that the design of our physical environment can have the effect of excluding us. The design of our electoral systems can have the same effect.

The dominant electoral system in Canada assumes that the only politically important communities are geographic. People in each area choose one representative. But many communities do not define themselves geographically. They are instead “communities of interest,” and these include people with disabilities who do not all live in one riding or district. Now, with increasing mobility and communications, communities of interest are much more important.

The City of Vancouver currently has 10 councillors, two of whom are quadriplegic. That means that 20 per cent of the government of Vancouver is quadriplegic! How is it that more than half of the total number of politicians with disabilities in Canada can be found in Vancouver? Vancouver has a different electoral system — the at-large system. Every Vancouver citizen can vote for 10 councillors. When citizens have only one vote, they are likely to vote for the type of person they are most comfortable with. When they have more than one vote, they are more likely to take a chance with someone different. People with disabilities are spread throughout the population and not grouped in one riding. Electoral systems that divide the population geographically can be seen in the exaggerated regionalism that is now evident in Canada.

The Philia Project is engaging citizens from all areas of Canada to rethink the place of people with disabilities in society. We believe that communities become stronger when they learn to recognize and value the contributions of those who are marginalized. Politics has a small but important role to play in this, and I am pleased to add my thoughts on this to The Philia Project: A Dialogue on Citizenship.

I welcome your thoughts on ways in which Philia can support a dialogue among people interested in participation in the political arena. Perhaps we will learn better ways to influence decisions that keep us from becoming full citizens.

(Sam Sullivan is the first quadriplegic elected city councillor in Canada and is currently in his third term in Vancouver. He is also the founder of the ConnecTra Society, which uses goal-setting techniques and an income-generation cooperative to help people with disabilities reduce their dependence on the social service system. Contact him at

The Toronto Summer Institute

For current and future leaders who are struggling with finding practical solutions to complex problems, the Toronto Summer Institute on Inclusion, Community and Diversity is offered from July 7 to 13, 2001.

During this week-long learning extravaganza, a large portion of the agenda is created by you to meet your needs. The Toronto Summer Institute is a gathering place — a moveable learning feast where an estimated 125 souls who share a commitment to inclusion, diversity and community become co-learners together. Philia is the bond that will hold that group — and our communities — together.

Come and be a co-thinker. Be part of creating a unique and extraordinary learning community. For more information, visit or call (416) 658-5363.


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