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Political Participation of Disabled Canadians: Disability Matters Vote 2016

Political Participation of Disabled Canadians: Disability Matters Vote 2016

Interview with Allen Mankewich

On Twitter I found out about an amazing nonpartisan campaign mobilizing voters with disabilities in Manitoba, Canada called Disability Matters Vote 2016. Here is my condensed interview with one of the co-spokepersons, Allen Mankewich. We talked about disability issues in Canada, his advocacy work and the campaign. Thanks for connecting us, Oly Backstrom!

Tell me about yourself and your background.

Allen: I’m not sure how to best format this answer, so I’ll just ramble a bit. I have spina bifida and have used a wheelchair since birth. I feel like my upbringing was fairly normal. People ask me if it was a struggle to get into mainstream school. I honestly don’t remember…I don’t really feel like I developed my disability identity until adulthood. Growing up, I played wheelchair basketball and tennis. Aside from that, I didn’t really have any friends with disabilities or much awareness of disability culture.

My entire career after university has consisted working within the disability community. Growing up, I didn’t imagine myself doing advocacy work, but I’m grateful for the opportunity. I’ve worked for the provincial government in their disability programs branch, worked at research organization that focused on disability issues, and now work at an independent living centre…

In 2015, I participated in the United States State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, where we traveled to different U.S. cities and visited advocates, disability organizations and people working in different levels of government and learned how everyone is using advocacy and tools like the ADA so people with disabilities in the United States can exercise their civil rights and be included in all aspects of society. I was so thankful for that experience, and it helped give me some different perspectives that I hope to incorporate into my work. I think all of these experiences, most of which have happened in the last few years, have helped me shape my identity. I think tools like Twitter and Facebook are also great for connecting with people who are doing advocacy and it has been a great learning tool for me.

For people living outside of Canada, what is Manitoba like for people with disabilities?

Allen: I think it depends who you ask. I think there’s more similarities than differences between here and other provinces. People across Canada are struggling with the same thing. Not enough accessible housing, whether it’s market housing or social housing, unemployment and underemployment, programming like home care that doesn’t always meet the everyone’s needs. Provision of assistive devices is inconsistent across Canada, and Manitoba has arguably the worst wheelchair services program in Canada.

Our paratransit system is under investigation by the Manitoba Ombudsman. Disability discrimination is behind the majority of complaints to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission. We still have a couple of institutions, but the government has a deinstitutionalization strategy. We tend to cluster people with intellectual disabilities into group homes, which limits their ability to choose how they live and who they live with. We also still run day programs.

Attitudinal barriers are still pretty persistent. I feel like that’s an issue people with disabilities deal with no matter where they’re located. I hope that once we are perceived differently, the supports we rely on will improve. I hope I’m not painting a bleak picture. There are a lot of people with disabilities and allies doing great work, but we have to keep pushing.

I will say that we do have winters with lots of snow at times, so that can make it hard to get around in the winter if you’re using any kind of mobility device.

What are some major disability policies and issues unique to Manitoba?

Allen: I would say the major initiative right now is working on the standards around the new Accessibility for Manitobans Act, which was passed in 2013. In terms of legislation, it could be described as Manitoba’s version of the ADA. It has five key areas it will focus on, including customer service, employment, information and communication, built environment and transportation. The customer service standard has been implemented, and the employment standard is under development.

What are some national public policies and issues that Canadians with disabilities working on this year?

Allen: The Liberal Party, which was elected in 2015, has committed to enacting federal disability legislation. There is an online consultation that is already underway, and there will be public consultations starting in a couple of weeks. I hope that’s something that people with disabilities can rally around. My only concern is that legislation won’t fix everything, whether it’s provincially or federally, so we need to continue to do advocacy on issues that won’t be solved by legislation.

There is a January 2016 interview with you about assisted suicide where you said, “If I found the right doctor, I could string them along to believe I need an assisted death.” As co-chair of the Manitoba League of Persons With Disabilities, tell me about the mission of this group and how it started.

Allen: The Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities started in 1974. It is an advocacy organization for people with disabilities. One of the first issues they rallied around was the inaccessibility of the fixed-route transit system. They were able to fight for paratransit in Winnipeg. We now have a fixed-route transit fleet that is almost 100% low floor buses, and we also have the paratransit system. Since its inception, MLPD has been active on advocating on a number of different issues. The organization just completed an oral history, and some of the clips are online:

I recently saw another recent article about a disabled woman in B.C. joining a lawsuit to challenge the current assisted-dying law. What is your reaction to that? What do you think about the law itself and what it means for disabled Canadians?

Allen: In 2013, Canada struck down its law prohibiting someone from assisting someone else to die. Since then, the government has crafted legislation around medical assistance in dying. There has been great debate within and outside of the disability community. There are a range of views, even among people with disabilities. It’s a very personal subject for many people. Personally, I have taken the position of opposing assisted death. I feel like the discussion has exposed a lot of ableism, and many haven’t considered what it means to be vulnerable or what a dignified life means. You hear people say they would rather be dead than disabled. I would like people who say those things to think about why they think that way.

I feel that the legislation offers some protection for people with disabilities, in that their deaths have to be reasonably foreseeable in order to qualify. Along with enacting this legislation, I think we also need to strengthen palliative supports for all Canadians, as well as ensuring that all Canadians have what they need to live a dignified life.

Tell me about Disability Matters 2016 and your involvement with it. Why is it important for disabled people to get politically involved? Are there similar initiatives in other provinces since the success of Disability Matters 2016?

Allen: I served as the co-spokesperson with this campaign. I feel like it’s important for disabled people to become politically involved to the extent that they can. It is hard to ignore us when we rally around something like Disability Matters. I feel like we need to embed ourselves in all aspects of public life, as well as guiding the policies, initiatives and organizations that help us live our lives.

I first became aware of this campaign when I started seeing live-tweets about the Disability Matters: Vote 2016 Great Debate where representatives from the Green Party, Liberal Party, New Democrat Party and Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba were asked questions related to your group’s 5 priority issues. What were the major challenges in getting an event like this organized? What was the turnout like by the disability community?

Allen: The event happened in the middle of our provincial election campaign so there was a lot going on for everyone, including our initiative, as well as everything that the political parties were trying to coordinate. We wanted to ensure representation from all parties at our debate, and all parties sent a representative. We also wanted to ensure we had a packed room, and we weren’t taking RSVPs so we didn’t know who would come.

Fortunately the room was packed and there were one or two overflow rooms. Many were people with disabilities and their allies. I don’t have the numbers handy for how many attend in person, but it was a few hundred, and over 1100 viewed the webcast. The debate was hosted by a prominent media figure, and we also got a decent amount of media attention. I feel like it was a successful event.

As a co-partner in #CripTheVote, we’ve been using Twitter as our main way of having open and public conversations as a way to garner attention and create community. What’s your advice on getting politicians to listen to voices of disabled people?

Allen: That is a tough question to answer, because I’m not sure I know the answer. I think being visible is important. We had many high-profile events during our Disability Matters campaign, including a launch that over 1600 people attended. We also had the debate, and were featured in many news articles during the campaign. We also printed lawn signs that were very visible throughout the community during the campaign. I think we helped push awareness of disability issues into a lot of public circles.

I think because of that, it wasn’t just people with disabilities asking the candidates about these issues when they would show up at our door, I feel like many others were asking too. As I said earlier, I also think it’s important for us to actually get involved in politics too, so that we don’t see situations where the politicians are happy to show up during the campaign and then forget about us once they are elected. With the recent DNC convention, you saw fairly powerful examples of them including people with disabilities as speakers, and also in the messaging from non-disabled speakers, but you hope that that the Democrats will show the same level of interest in including the voice of people with disabilities should they win in November.

What is your advice to disabled community organizers who want to conduct outreach to people w/ disabilities? What are some lessons you can share from your experience w/ Disability Matters 2016?

Allen: I think it’s important to find out what issues matter to them. As an organizer, I think it’s easy to assume that you know what issues matter, so I think it’s important to check your assumptions and find some key things that people can rally around, and then get commitments from the candidates on those issues.

I think the most important thing is to convince everyone with a disability to get their issues on the platform of the candidates and to know what the candidates stand for.

I think the key thing is to encourage people with disabilities to vote. I saw a stat somewhere that people with disabilities in the U.S. number around 70 million, so obviously that’s enough to influence the outcome of elections. Make the candidates earn your vote.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with me? 

Allen: I think that’s is pretty much all I can tell you for now… I feel like disability advocacy will always be something I’m passionate about. It’s hard to see changes sometimes, which can be frustrating. I once heard someone describe disability advocacy as relentless incrementalism, and it certainly feels that way sometimes. In terms of the future, I will look for opportunities both within and outside the disability community to do what I can to support people in achieving their rights.


Allen Mankewich

Twitter: @AllenMankewich

Disability Matters Vote 2016 is a non-partisan public awareness campaign. This campaign is a joint initiative between Abilities MB and Barrier Free MB.


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