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HomeNewsParliament's front door not ready for paralyzed MP

Parliament’s front door not ready for paralyzed MP

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OTTAWA — Canada’s first quadriplegic MP was forced to take a back entrance through the kitchen yesterday to join his new colleagues for lunch in the swank parliamentary restaurant.

Steven Fletcher’s large motorized wheelchair is too big for the otherwise accessible elevators used by most diners.

That’s just one challenge facing the new Conservative MP for the Charleswood-St. James riding in Manitoba.

It’s still not clear how Mr. Fletcher, who is paralyzed from the neck down, will cast his vote in the Commons; standing votes are the norm for major legislation.

“Maybe I’ll just wink at the Speaker,” Mr. Fletcher joked soon after he was elected on June 28.

Commons officials are working on what may be an electronic or other solution, said Colette Dery, a spokeswoman for the Speaker’s office.

“We made a commitment to provide him with what he needs, and obviously voting is going to be an important part of that,” Ms. Dery said.

Parliament Hill is widely accessible, but other changes — such as enlarging one of the elevators up to the parliamentary restaurant — are being considered, she said.

Cost estimates were not immediately available.

Mr. Fletcher controls his wheelchair with head movements and relies on a wireless telephone, a voice-activated computer and 24-hour assistance.

Asked if he has any rookie misgivings, he drew on tragic perspective. “I’ve gone through a lot on the old stress-o-meter. Compared to surviving in the hospital, this is much more enjoyable.”

The 32-year-old, who almost died when his car hit a moose in 1996, has become a magnet for long-stifled hopes.

He has been flooded with e-mails from across Canada from people struggling with Disability and health issues, he said.

“I’m really sort of taken aback,” Mr. Fletcher said before attending his first orientation session for new members of Parliament.

“There’s a lot of people who have waited a long time for someone with a disability, let alone a severe disability, to be elected to Parliament. And there’s a lot of people who are putting a lot of hope in that, by my presence here, awareness will increase dramatically.”

Mr. Fletcher prides himself on exceeding expectations. After his accident, he led the University of Manitoba Students Union and earned a master’s degree in business.

The former kayaking champion and canoeing instructor won first prize in the 2001 Mobility Cup, an international regatta founded by British Columbia’s Disabled Sailing Association.

Mr. Fletcher acknowledges the “additional responsibility” that comes with being a disabled MP but is not a one-issue politician.

“I was elected to deal with health care, accountability and issues surrounding investment in the military and postsecondary education,” he said. “And I’m going to focus on those aspects.”

He said he wants to help spur long-overdue changes.

“If I can help do that, what an honour.”

Canadian Press

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