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Candidate in wheelchair wants to change city hall - including the doors

Terri Wallis is very aware of the fact that if she was elected tomorrow, she wouldn’t even be able to get into the council chambers.

Council chamber doors are not accessible

Terri Wallis (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Terri Wallis is very aware of the fact that if she was elected tomorrow, she wouldn’t even be able to get through the doors of the council chambers.

The city did a massive renovation of city hall in 2010. But in doing so, it forgot to make its council chamber doors accessible.

So every time someone with a wheelchair comes to a council meeting, the clerk has to get up mid-meeting — as everyone watches — and open the door for them.

Councillors don’t take the bus. They don’t have the slightest idea what’s going on with public transportation.- Terri Wallis

Wallis is a council candidate for Ward 2, and a unique one this election. She not only uses a wheelchair, but she sits on several accessibility committees around the city. If she’s elected, she says, one of the first things she wants to change are those darn doors.

“Even though city hall has just been renovated, there are a few things that would need to be fixed before I got in there,” she said.

With provincial Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities (AODA) legislation of 2005, municipalities have been dragged into making themselves accessible. But Wallis is, to date, one of the only council candidates for the Oct. 27 municipal election with a noticeable disability.

Politically, there aren’t a lot of role models. David Onley, the province’s lieutenant governor, has blazed trails for people with disabilities in politics, Wallis said. But when he came to meet with the city’s accessibility committee last year, “a lot of people had to scramble to make things accessible for him."

Wallis says she represents a lot of communities that haven’t traditionally had a voice at council. She’s a female person of colour and on Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). Rather than owning a spacious home like many on council, she lives in a one-bedroom apartment on Market Street, where she plans to stay if she’s elected. She also uses the transit system daily.

“Councillors don’t take the bus,” Wallis said. “They don’t have the slightest idea what’s going on with public transportation. I use public transportation. I use DARTS. I use HSR. I know the problems that are there, and there are a lot of problems.”

Wallis, 50, was born in Montreal and worked in professional theatre in Ottawa for years. She moved to Hamilton 14 years ago from Mississauga after the death of her mother, for whom she was a caregiver. She needed an apartment she could afford, and looked in a rental magazine that featured affordable apartments in Hamilton.

She’s worked on many NDP campaigns federally and provincially, and has been a member of local riding associations. She also acted as campaign manager for Jessica Brennan, current chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, in the last municipal election.

She’s served on numerous committees and boards in Hamilton, including the city's accessibility for persons with disabilities committee since 2006. She also serves on accessibility advisory committees for Metrolinx and the Downtown BIA.

Campaign hard on a fixed income

Accessibility is only one plank in her platform, she said. She has stances on other issues.

There are a lot of people who would not normally vote for your typical white male who might be willing to vote for me because I am not in any way the typical candidate,- Terri Wallis

But in terms of accessibility, there are many aspects of the system that need to be fixed, she said, and council doesn't seem aware of them enough to fix them.

Too often, she said, it’s obvious that accessibility decisions are made by people without first-hand experience.

An example: CityHousing Hamilton is the city’s social housing provider. But when people apply for accessible housing, Wallis said, it doesn’t differentiate between people with physical disabilities and people with mental ones. So someone with a mental disability will be housed in a wheelchair-friendly unit while someone in a wheelchair remains on the waiting list.

Last year, Wallis presented to councillors on the inaccessibility of the transit system, taking pictures to illustrate how difficult it is to navigate with a wheelchair. Some stops drift off into ditches, while others sit on inaccessible curbs.

Money is a big reason why more people with disabilities don’t run, she said. She's busy fundraising and finding pennies where she can to fund her campaign.

“It takes a lot of money to run an election campaign. Traditionally, people with disabilities are on ODSP. We don’t have the same income and it’s harder for us to run a campaign.”

Trouble getting to front doors

Even day-to-day campaign tasks are harder. Wallis plans to go door knocking, but many homes have steps leading to front doors. She’ll need a volunteer to knock on the door for her and persuade the person to come outside and talk.

Darlene Burkett, a local disability advocate, said it’s harder for people with disabilities to even muster the energy to run for politics. Every day is focused on navigating transportation, health care and other systematic issues.

Jude Mersereau, a member of the Campaign for OW and ODSP, agrees. Self-esteem is also a factor.

“After years and years of rejection and frustration, they just lose hope,” she said. “They have learned to take care of themselves and have some dignity, but they just don’t have the oomph anymore to go out and do something about it.”

But a councillor who openly has a physical or mental disability “would be wonderful,” she said.

Also a second-degree black belt

“It would be wonderful if they had a stance where they said, ‘Yes, I’m disabled, but I’m still a politician and fighting for what I believe in and what my community needs.’”

Wallis is also an athlete, having played on the national women's sledge hockey team. She's played on a baseball team for players with disabilities and has a second-degree black belt. 

She's running against incumbent Jason Farr, fitness instructor Kristina Heaton and Hess Street resident Ed Dallas. If she hopes to win, she said, she’ll have to mobilize people who are usually too disenfranchised to vote.

“There are a lot of people who would not normally vote for your typical white male who might be willing to vote for me because I am not in any way the typical candidate,” she said.

“It’s a diverse city. It’s a diverse community. Everyone has to be represented and right now, they’re not.”

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