Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the member for Montcalm for her leadership in the area of spinal cord injury and disability and for her contribution to Canada as a whole. Public service is difficult, and the member for Montcalm has distinguished herself.
I would like to pick up where the member left off on the washroom issue and the idea of encouraging everyone to spend a day in a wheelchair. We do that. My colleague from Edmonton has done that.
I used to bring people together in the morning. They would come and gather in my office. They would get their wheelchair, and I would be sure to give them lots of coffee. At the end of the day, if anyone said that he or she had spent the entire day in the wheelchair, I knew for sure that the person was telling a white lie, because the washrooms are hard to find, and when one gets there, it is hard to know what to do if one is in a wheelchair.
That is something that is really emblematic of what happens. Just having a flush entrance does not mean a facility is accessible.
With regard to spinal cord awareness week, the United Kingdom has a day and Australia has a week. Part of spinal cord awareness week is awareness. What happens to the body when people have a spinal cord injury is not well understood. It is because nobody wants to talk about what it actually means. It is very uncomfortable. I am going to use this opportunity to explain some of the uncomfortable realities of a spinal cord injury.
Generally, there are quadriplegics and paraplegics. A paraplegic is one who has use of his or her arms. A quadriplegic is someone who is, like me, paralyzed from the neck down.
What does paralyzed from the neck down mean? The obvious thing is that the person cannot move any muscles below the neck. However, it also means not feeling hunger, not feeling hot or cold, not having the sense of touch. It is a bit like being a turtle on a log. One moves toward the ambient temperature of the room or the environment in which one finds oneself.
People who are quadriplegics cannot feed themselves. They cannot dress or undress themselves. They cannot shower. People at a high level, as in my case, need people 24 hours a day to help with the activities of daily living, including going to the washroom. Again, this is really icky, but it is a reality. There are a variety of things that people do, such as using indwelling catheters and other kinds of medical devices. It is the same situation on the bowel side. The individual with the injury needs help with all of that. That is really difficult.
Then we combine it with the need for proper care, which is always difficult to find and finance. Some people are fortunate to have insurance. In most cases the insurance is not nearly enough. That is something auto insurance companies and workers' comp need to look at because most spinal cord injuries occur come from a driving or work accident.
Also, the issue of reproduction is compromised as well. It is a fundamental part of being human. We are physical creatures. The change in the lifestyle that the member for Montcalm describes is almost a metamorphosis into a different kind of existence. I have to live in my mind and I am very glad that I live in Canada where someone like the member for Montcalm, or myself or many others can be a quadriplegic or paraplegic and still contribute to society.
However, there are many barriers and they include attitudinal issues. I am sure the member for Montcalm has had this happen to her. When I go to a restaurant, someone asks the person who I am with what I want to eat. The person responds “Why don't you ask the person in the wheelchair?” Then the person will sort of raise their voice and say “What would you like to eat?” It is like there is some sort of cognitive or hearing impairment associated with the wheelchair.
These are well intentioned people, but too many people do not have the awareness. I admit that I was one of those people before my accident in 1996.
Another thing is accommodation in the workplace. In the House of Commons, I would like to thank all my colleagues for allowing a stranger in the House, my caregiver who sits with me. Here, in committees and in cabinet, no one raises an eyebrow.
There have also been efforts to adjust the seating to accommodate wheelchairs. I remember when I got here, they put me over on the opposition side because we were in opposition. Claude, the architect, described all the things he had to do to accommodate me. I told him all of that was temporary, and he kind of looked at me. I told him that in a few months I would be on the government side of the House. He laughed. Then I looked him in the eye and said “Then I'm going to run for Speaker”. If we want to see an architect melt down, that is one way to do it.
I give those examples as if those most sensitive committees at the highest level in Canadian society can accommodate a quadriplegic who cannot even move a finger, there is no reason workplaces, educational institutions or any other part of society cannot accommodate people with a disabilities. They may not be able to answer or solve a problem the same way most people can, but they will get there. Technology is a great equalizer.
Since I am not competing to play football or anything, I focus on my strengths. When I ran the first time, people said interesting things. First was that I did not sound disabled. That was a classic. I was asked why would anyone vote for me, given I was really a nobody and in this physical situation. This was on the radio too. My response to that was “I would rather be paralyzed from the neck down than from the neck up“.
The point is that we need to evaluate people on the content of their character and their ability to contribute, and we need to be creative in how that contribution is made. We also have to ensure that we have the supports in home care, transportation, and the education system. We need to empower people so that they can make the best decisions for themselves, so we need to remove the systemic barriers that exist.
What we need for spinal cord injury applies to senior citizens. Members may be interested to know that. It applies as well to people with temporary or episodic disabilities. It goes on and on.
The last comment I would like to make is that Dr. Fehlings at Toronto Western Research Institute is a medical hero in Canada. Just last week in the media he announced that research had allowed paraplegics to gain more sensation through his work and that of his team with respect to the central nervous system. That is a game changer.
The government has invested in this, and I know all of the parties support that kind of investment. Would it not be wonderful if someday spinal cord or brain injuries were something for the history books and that we would all be able to live long and prosperous lives?
We live in the best country in the world. It is the best time in human history to be alive. God bless Canada.