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Friday, June 13, 2008

Sam Sullivan, Mayor

Few Americans know who same Sam Sullivan is. Perhaps those with a keen interest in the Olympics will recall the closing moments of the 2006 Winter games in Turin, Italy. As tradition dictates, Sullivan, the Mayor of Vancouver, was selected to hold the Olympic flag. While this ceremony is well worn, the fact Sullivan was a quadriplegic was outside the norm. There simply are not many quadriplegic Mayors in Canada, Europe, or the United States. Holding the Olympic flag is a powerful symbol and for a brief moment Sullivan was the most famous mayor in the world.

Fast forward to 2008. Sullivan has fallen out of grace with the citizens of Vancouver and his political party. He just lost the nomination vote within his own party, the Non-Partisan Association. What makes Sullivan so interesting is that he was the first disabled mayor of a major Canadian city. He is also one of the first politicians to not win a nomination without a some sort of lurid scandal leading to his downfall. I am not well versed in Vancouver politics and my knowledge of Sullivan is limited to the You Tube documentary and a few articles I have read since he was elected. Like most politicians, Sullivan is skilled at providing sound bites--my favorite is contained on the Your Tube clip-"I like the fact people under estimate me, they pat me on the head and then I rip their throats out".

What I have found particularly interesting in the last few days is the news accounts of Sullivan's rapid political rise and fall. Reports can be found in most Canadian news outlets such as the Globe & Mail, Star, Vancouver Sun, and Far too many accounts refer to Sullivan as "wheelchair bound" while others refer to him as the "accidental mayor", a moniker he does not dispute. What did Sullivan do so wrong? Here are some reasons that have been mentioned:

He was not cut out for the job in the first place.
He had trouble figuring out what to do.
He does not inspire.
He made everything out to be about his disability.
He was too self absorbed and worried about his image.

The nastiest comments have largely been left unsaid. There is no doubt in my mind that Sullivan's disability figures prominently in his down fall. According to one of his advisors who was quoted in the Globe & Mail: "the hatred for Sam is amazing. I've talked to lots of people about why and no one can put a finger on it. It's not his handling of a specific issue or issues, it's more ephemeral than that. They just don't like him--period".

Why do people dislike Sullivan? According to Gary Mason of the Globe & Mail, Sullivan had many detractors, none of whom could articulate their intense dislike for the man. This leads Mason to write that Sullivan was elected principally because his personal story was so inspiring, that it was a narrative that the world could not resist. This so called "narrative" is all too familiar to disabled people--the Horatio Alger formula of rags to riches in literature or the super cripple image of a person "overcoming" their disability. The only person willing to voice their opinion on this matter is Bob Rennie, an important real estate figure in Vancouver. Rennie, an outspoken critic of Sullivan, has sated that he "thinks his wheelchair got him there [the mayor's office] But it wasn't enough to keep him there". I detest this comment but respect that he had the nerve to voice what others likely think. This highlights a big problem: no one considers Rennie's comment to be bigoted. Thus I suggest readers substitute the word wheelchair with the word black. What would the reaction of the media have been? Outrage for sure. Sadly, this indicates to me it is still socially acceptable to be prejudiced against disabled people. People do not state this explicitly nor do they wake up in the morning and think they are bigots. But just because it is not thought about or uttered does not mean bigotry does not exist. I assure bigotry is alive and well. I experience it on a daily basis at work and in public. The bigotry I encounter is both voiced and unvoiced. It also hurts and leads me to ceaselessly wonder why people without disabilities are so quick to judge others with a disability. This has always infuriated and puzzled me. I have and will continue to rail against being judged as a human based upon the fact I use a wheelchair. To me, my wheelchair is simply a means of locomotion, one that is both more and less efficient than walking. Yet society seems utterly incapable of seeing past my wheelchair. Instead most people conjure up grossly out dated and worn out stereotypes about disabled people. I hope these stereotypes will be shattered and stories such as the one's I read about Sullivan become a thing of the past. Sadly, I think this is in the very distant future.


Veralidaine said...

Wow, I had no idea of this whole story! I'll have to go look into it more. Thanks for bringing it up!

Sarah Heacox said...

Thanks Bill! Very interesting. I'll admit that all I knew about this guy was his special flag-waving rig for the Olympics.

william Peace said...

I suspect in person Sullivan is quite a character. I too had a hazy recall of him waving the flag at the Olympics. And, yes, the rig on his wheelchair used to wave the flag was cool. I spotted a clip on You Tube and my first thought was I hope he does not fall over backwards-- that flag he was waving must have made him top heavy. Gosh, what a silly thought only another paralyzed person would think of.