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A Politician Wanna Be

Editor's Note: Editors Note: Ross Eadie is the newly-elected 1st. Vice- President of the NFB:AE. In this article, Ross tells how he has come close to gaining election to political offices. Next time, we hope he will succeed, and for Ross Eadie, we think there will be a next time.

At Independence 92" in Vancouver, people with disabilities from all over the world congregated in one place. Our leaders called for people to become politicians and part of the government. As described in detail, our leaders said we have lobbied, marched, and educated the public on the ability of those with disabilities, and we still have a long way to go to change society. They said we still haven't put enough people in government to make a real change. They said we could not make changes without someone who lives the life of disability being right at the heart of decision-making.

I was fired up to help make further changes, to play my part. However, I went home and worked on the usual advocacy scene.

I spent several years volunteering on the City of Winnipeg's Access Advisory Committee. We made some steps forward, but it was like pounding at a wall for two or three years until a small dent was made. Politicians said they understood, but they would not take the bold steps needed to make change. I decided the only way was to get in there and push.

It sounds like my only interest in government are disability issues. However, while working on various committees within the City's consulting process, I became aware of many problems that needed solutions. It was my belief as a parent, worker, tax payer, and citizen that I could do the job of city councillor, especially with my education and life experience.

In order to win an election, a person must be able to deal with issues that concern the general population. We are all things first and blind last. I felt and knew I could deal with the general issues while constantly injecting practical ideas to ensure bylaws and policies recognise people with disabilities.

The Election Experience

There are other ways of getting into politics without running for office. In this article, I will describe these other methods. However, I would first like to tell you the story of my two election experiences.

In both elections, my campaign team and I decided to not focus on anything to deal with disability issues unless it was an issue at a specific door. Both times I made a move in the early part of the election to identify and talk to people with disabilities. Other than that, we dealt with things as people at the door saw fit. The following description of two elections explains some of the challenges of being a person with a disability in a general election.

Winnipeg Election 1998

In 1998, I ran in the civic election against an eighteen-year incumbent. The current mayor felt I stood a chance to win, and so did my labour endorsement colleagues. However, the media didn't give me much of a chance. There were two other people with disabilities running in the election. They had media attention in the past as radical, unsteady, unreasonable handicapped people. This same perception of me was there as well at least from my perspective. We worked very hard over five weeks. We had a team of people, including several teenagers who wrote a rap song about me and the campaign.

My disability led to a few problems with voters and promoters. It first started off with a pamphlet which only showed my face with sunglasses on. A fairly large number of people called in to ask who does this Ross Eadie guy think he is?

My campaign manager (now good friend) explained to those who called that I was blind. We will never know if this sunglass issue cost us votes, but I can tell you one guy invited me into the house to just find out about me and these sunglasses. He said he was voting for the other guy. I smiled and gave him a pamphlet while saying he might change his mind on voting day. I also explained that I had light perception in my left eye, and I needed sunglasses to block the bright light which gives me headaches.

A woman called into the office saying she was not going to vote for me if it was going to cost her more tax dollars. I explained I used a computer with voice output to do most of my work and would require some assistance in getting to meetings outside of City Hall given a tight schedule. She said that was it, she wasn't going to vote for me because of paying for a computer. I explained to her that every City Councillor received a computer to carry out their jobs, and I would use my already-purchased voice synthesiser. She still said she would not vote for me because of the transportation. I did not bother to explain how the past mayor (Susan Thompson) used city-paid transportation. I think she was determined not to vote for me.

Another fellow didn't even listen to me at the door. He just went in the house and came out with money for the blind guy. I told him I could use the money for the campaign, but I really wanted his vote. I am sure there were many more like this woman and fellow. However, people who met me at the door knew I was serious and liked what I had to say.

In the end, I lost by a vote of 46 percent to 54 percent. At one point, I was ahead in the polls, and the former mayor of Winnipeg (Bill Norrie) was commenting on CBC television, saying I was an intelligent young man. But he said he did not know how I was going to keep up with all the reading. On the radio after the election I explained how the clerks department was very good at getting things onto computer disk.

The Manitoba Election 1999

Bitten by the bug to win an election, I got involved with the political party that most closely represented my political philosophy, the NDP. People encouraged me to run for the nomination in The Maples, which is part of the area in Winnipeg I ran in during the last civic election. I ended up losing the nomination. It was a similar episode as the nomination for NDP leader in British Columbia lots of membership runup with people not really committed to the party.

I stuck around in The Maples afterward to help the nominee win the election. Partway into the provincial election (four and a half weeks to go out of six) someone said I should run in River East where the NDP had no candidate. Not to far from home, I said yes, and away we went running against the Minister of Family Services, who I felt let people with disabilities down during her tenure.

This time my disability was less of a factor. Only one guy called in to say he was not going to vote for me if I used Braille. His son was blind, and he knew that Braille is expensive to produce.

We had a small but hard-working group of campaign workers, and again, we were being counted out of the race. However, my competitor was working much harder when she heard the guy who almost beat Mike O'Shaughnessy was running against her. I soon found out provincial elections are much more competitive. In the civic election, people were pleasant even if they were not going to vote for you. In the provincials with party affiliation, conservatives, who were told since they were children that those NDP communists will drive the province to the brink of disaster, slammed their doors in my face while spewing out unkind words. Not taking these comments too seriously, I would give out a thank you anyway and leave a pamphlet while saying you will want to know our platform when we win.

A few days before election day, I had a feeling it was going to be close, even though I only knocked on less than half the doors in the constituency about 2,500. People were fed up with the Conservatives. On election day however, we fell short by 732 votes. People could not believe it. Again, I was ahead in the polls at the start. It was heartbreaking this time because we could have pulled it out of the hat if we had a couple of more weeks and more people power.

Election Retrospective

People are telling me the next campaign will be a win. I have proven there is something voters like, but I will tell you no politician can win without people believing in them and working their hearts out for them. There were people in tears in both the losses. I told them I feel like a winner because of their efforts. In the case of the provincial election I also said, we won the government because of people like you.

Some Advice

If you want to run, choose the party that you believe in. Disability issues should not be political. However, because of the way government works, it is inevitable politics will get played out in the process.

The media portrays politics on disability issues all the time. Many policy makers think, it is okay for a person with a disability to be on social assistance, but it is not okay for someone who is able-bodied. Politicians make major efforts to get people who are able-bodied back to work, but they will not pass laws that will make it possible for people with disabilities to get a job. There is a need out there, and every government has to fulfil this need. We just need to push them by being involved.

Make a list of every person you know with addresses and telephone numbers. You need to have volunteers and some basis, if possible, for funds. Elections can be expensive. My first was approximately $9,000.00 and the second was over $20,000.00. The provincial election, however, involves the party and membership assisting to pay the bills. Civic elections are harder to raise funds for because there are no tax breaks at least in Winnipeg. In the provincials there is a 50 percent rebate of money expenditures if the campaign meets certain criteria.

The provincial government in Manitoba pays 100 percent of election expenses related to disability needs. In my case, there was no way I could get to the doors of houses I have never been to quick enough. As it was, some stairs were so difficult and useless that I slipped off. We hired someone to drive and walk with me.

Prepare yourself at least a year ahead. I started too late in the game to win. Get involved in the community you want to run in. Go to community centres and talk to people about their opinion on government. At first, try knocking on doors where old friends live. Then, try doors you have never been to before to talk about specific political issues. Give these people your perspective and solutions to these problems. Maybe you can sign them up as party members. They will most likely support you in a nomination race unless they lose confidence in you. Let people with disabilities in the community know you're running. They might support you even though they don't usually vote for your party. They will tell their friends and neighbours about you, and maybe to vote for you.

Other Ways to Influence Government

We all need to give something to change the way people think of blindness and assist us to overcome very high levels of unemployment. Many of us work in the volunteer advocacy arena, but there are two methods I will briefly mention to influence politics and government. If you're not fond of knocking on doors where you do not know anybody, or other reasons, you can make a political difference by becoming a member of a political party.

Members get to go to conventions where party policies are set. Members can become part of the executive to further influence policy, and members who specialise in various areas of government concern can be hired to work on policy or assist ministers. Would it not be great if we had someone in the Prime Ministers office or part of a provincial executive council?

The second way to influence has been demonstrated in Ontario. With a major push in converting voters to supporting improvements for people with disabilities, the Ontarians with Disabilities Act people have made great strides toward their goal. I myself would love to have had a large body of people pushing for Ross Eadie votes to bring some sort of importance to changing laws and policies. You do not have to join a political party to convince people to vote for a person or a party that will make the required changes.

In Conclusion

Many people have worked very hard to change society's perspective on disability. We work for social service agencies, advocacy organisation's, in government departments, and we volunteer all over the place. Some of us have even reached the caucus of government, but many more of us need to get there to affect the changes which have not been made yet.

Things have not actually changed much since Independence 92". There have been a few battles won, like more implementation of audible pedestrian signals, but we have seen backward steps like improper application of undo hardship principles. Our unemployment statistics still run 500 percent higher than those for people who are able-bodied. So, being a major contributor to caucus or privy council is where we get things changed that have yet to be changed.

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