A New Brunswick university professor is calling attention to the need to overcome barriers people with disabilities face in politics after discovering an "extremely low" number of them enter public life.
Mario Levesque, a political science professor at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., said his research, which dealt with people with physical, mental and intellectual disabilities, is in its early stages but he is hoping to spark a national conversation on the issue.
"There's very few overall that do seek political office," said Levesque in an interview. "People need to see themselves in our elected officials, and if we don't, then they don't see them as legitimate governing bodies.
"We want people to be part of the system."
His research was prompted by a request from the Nova Scotia Disabled Persons Commission, which was mulling the idea of opening a school for people with disabilities seeking public office, Levesque said.
He said he found very little study on the topic and decided to start filling the gap, so he reviewed party constitutions and sent out a voluntary survey to the presidents and in some cases the leaders of 42 provincial political parties across Canada asking them how many of their members and candidates had a disability. Twenty-four per cent of them responded, he said.
Out of a possible 2,084 candidates over the last three elections in each province, 20 of them had a disability according to the survey respondents — roughly 0.01 per cent, he said.
"That's extremely low when you consider that 15 to 21 per cent of the Canadian population is disabled, depending on how disability is defined," he said. "There's a big disconnect there."
Levesque said it's possible there are politicians and candidates who have a disability that isn't visible to the public and have not self-identified, or whose party president or leader is unaware that such a disability exists.
Still, he said his goal is to understand why more people with disabilities are not pulled to public life and help break down those barriers.
"We have to start asking, 'Do people with disabilities see themselves in the political process? Is it a viable option? Why or why not?" he said.
He said his research also found that Nova Scotia has had the most people with disabilities who sought office during the last three elections — seven candidates, with two winning their ridings — but candidates were more likely to have success in British Columbia, where three have been elected.
Manitoba is the only province that reimburses candidates with disabilities for added campaign costs — such as accessible vans or a sign language interpreter that would travel door-to-door — so long as they attain 10 per cent of the vote, Levesque said.
"We're hoping that this spreads to other provinces," he said.
Alberta Liberal politician Kent Hehr, a quadriplegic, said systemic societal issues are deterring people with disabilities from entering politics.
"Society isn't always as easy to navigate for a disabled person as it is for a 'normal' individual," said the 44-year-old Hehr, who became disabled in 1991 after being shot in a random act of violence.
"There's a multitude of challenges. To be disabled in our society means you're going to be underemployed, have less access to money, less access to education, less access to the ability to take part in our society."
But Hehr said while the systemic issues and added campaign costs are somewhat of a barrier, having a disability can actually work to a candidate's advantage on the election trail.
"It can actually be one of the things you showcase," said Hehr in an interview from Calgary.
"When I go down the street oftentimes the people say, "Oh, there's my MLA. He's a wheelchair user.' It's easier for them to remember me because I'm a little different."
Levesque said encouraging more people with disabilities to seek office is important in building an inclusive society, but many changes will need to be made.
Elections bodies will need to make it easier for people with disabilities to run and parties will have to do more to encourage them, while they themselves will need to boost awareness that politics is a viable career option, he said.
Levesque said he is continuing his research and wants to assemble a Canadian database of people with disabilities who have sought political office to help answer lingering questions.
"Do we need to get people with disabilities elected and sitting at that table, in the political offices, in cabinet, to have people recognize the issue as valid and to make significant changes?" he said.
"We have to be able to identify these obstacles and issues in order to be able to address them in the first place."
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