By Aleksandra Stefanovic-Chafe
Democracies pride themselves with giving voice to and protecting the rights of all the people they represent, and our federal and provincial governments are no exception.
However, when it comes to persons with disabilities, while progress has been made in advancing their rights in our province, their representation within government organizations is still unnecessarily limited.
For a group that has been historically marginalized and discriminated against, it may seem particularly challenging to engage in what traditionally have been considered institutions that disadvantage those with disabilities. In addition, the national rates for both unemployment and poverty for persons with disabilities are considerably higher than those for persons without disabilities. When faced with the struggle to meet some of life’s basic needs, this population group often feels politically apathetic and unwilling to participate in democratic processes, whether voicing opinions, advocating for their rights, voting or joining a political party. This lack of participation keeps particular issues, concerns and needs central to their lives at the margins of provincial policy–making.
The activism and civic engagement of the province’s disability organizations are vibrant, meaningful and strong.
Disability is a complex phenomenon. Historically described in terms of an individual’s deficit, the definition of disability has evolved to also reflect the interaction between persons with impairments and environmental and social barriers that hinder their full and effective participation in society.
This social model of disability asserts that social organization and structure are among the main causes of disability and brings political empowerment to disability groups to demand inclusion and full citizenship. However, more needs to be done to encourage better engagement of persons with disabilities in democratic processes, starting from the very early stages of their lives.
While we may lack data on political engagement for our province, let’s look at what we know. Over 10 per cent of our province’s population is considered to live with a disability, and many of them are eligible voters. The act of voting is a right, and yet it has been a missed opportunity for many persons with disabilities for decades. In the recent past, significant improvements have been made in making voting accessible across the province. During the last elections in 2015, Elections NL and community disability organizations worked together to encourage voting and improve voting experiences of individuals with disabilities. This improvement was accomplished through accessible voting stations, instructional videos for persons with visual or hearing impairments, and information for election officers to provide appropriate support and assistance. Persons with vision loss could place a tactile template over the ballot to vote independently, and others were provided special ballots that enabled them to vote outside a polling station.
Online voting, while successfully used in many municipalities across the country, is yet to become a common practice in our province. In addition to making voting accessible, local disability organizations provided an opportunity for persons with disabilities to engage with the provincial leaders in a discussion regarding their party platforms and disability-related issues during the election campaign.
The activism and civic engagement of the province’s disability organizations are vibrant, meaningful and strong. Agencies such as Coalition for Persons with Disabilities Newfoundland and Labrador and Empower continuously advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities. Along with enabling and encouraging them to vote, these organizations urge government to change election practices, strengthen and improve social policies related to disability and work on reducing stigma and prejudice.
But encouraging voting and making it accessible is only one aspect of political and civic engagement. In order for citizens with disabilities to be inspired to vote, they need to see their issues discussed and put forward by individuals who could best represent them. There needs to be mirror representation of our diversity within political leadership. Persons with disabilities do not just make up a certain percentage of our voting population, but they also represent an untapped potential for leadership, for alternative perspectives and understanding of diverse ways to work, live, and contribute to our community. It is neither moral nor practical to hinder their opportunities for a chance to compete at the highest levels of decision-making.
It is unclear how many persons with disabilities are in senior positions in our provincial government. Research suggests that they are not seeking elected office in numbers that represent their place in the general population.
Only about one per cent of the candidates who ran provincially across the country in the last three general elections were persons with disabilities. In the three most recent provincial elections, Nova Scotia had seven candidates with disabilities seeking political office, British Columbia had five, and Newfoundland and Labrador has yet to elect a person at the provincial level who self-identifies as having a disability. Similar to general employment issues, there are a number of systemic barriers for participation in elected politics, namely, lack of resources and supports for candidates with disability, and existing prejudices and negative attitudes towards disability.
Political parties should adopt more inclusive recruiting and nominating practices and take into consideration the diverse interests and experiences of all Canadians. Elected candidates should then be considered for cabinet appointments and key critic portfolios by premiers and oppositions leaders.
The government also needs to ensure proper access to education for all persons with disabilities, continuous and co-ordinated services through all stages of life, early employment/internship opportunities, and supportive employment environments. Many of these changes and actions are attitudinal and would not require additional resources and funding. They do, however, require open communication lines and a strong commitment to advancing democratic processes in our province while giving voices to historically marginalized populations.
About the Author
Aleksandra Stefanovic-Chafe (Medicine, Memorial University of Newfoundland) is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Medicine’s Division of Community Health and Humanities where she is researching disability and employment. Aleksandra holds BA and MA degrees in Political Science from MUN.