Les Leyne: Cheap attacks aimed at Stilwell’s gold

Les Leyne mugshot genericSocial Development Minister Michelle Stilwell drew a barrage of criticism this year over what became known as the disabled bus- pass issue.

She deserved every bit of it.

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But people who are using her world-beating performances at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro to sustain the attacks are being small-minded.

Stilwell won gold in the 400 metres last week. The B.C. Disability Caucus’s view of the accomplishment is clear on its Facebook page. It captioned a picture of her racing in her wheelchair with this: “Michelle Stilwell … is more concerned about wrapping herself up in inspiration porn and gold medals than she is wrapping persons on provincial disability up in adequate disability benefits and other quality of life enabling supports.”

Another picture of her is headlined “Olympian Hall of Shame.”

The Times Colonist posted a story about her win on Facebook. There were some comments to the effect that she is a good athlete but a lousy politician. Fair enough. But some also posted: “Apparently, Michelle Stilwell is able to walk … on the backs of the B.C. disabled living in poverty.”

There are dozens of comments on CBC stories about her performances in Rio. There’s a thread congratulating her and celebrating the achievements. But there’s a lot of dismissive, derogatory comment. “Two thumbs down to Stilwell and the CBC … How about doing a story about how the disabled have suffered?

“She does not deserve the attention she gets as some kind of champion. She basks in glory while those in her ministry go without month after month.”

Leaders of the campaign against the bus-pass changes are dismayed by some of the reaction to Stilwell’s moment of glory.

Jane Dyson, who got the Order of B.C. for her work with the Disability Alliance, has worked to highlight the bus-pass problems ever since they were announced last February. She said Monday: “It’s important to separate an elected official’s personal achievement from the policies of her government. I completely understand the disappointment and even anger, but it shouldn’t take away from her accomplishment, and the hard work it took to achieve.”

Faith Bodnar, of Inclusion B.C., has also campaigned against the move, but had the grace to tweet support to the Canadian Paralympic team, including a picture of Stilwell.

Paralympians are as competitive as any other athletes. Getting to the Paralympics and winning gold is a major accomplishment. Doing it when you have the life-consuming job of being a cabinet minister makes it even more significant.

Yes, it means she has lots of advantages — $144,424 a year in salary and $48,000 in travel allowance last year. But finding the time to train to the level needed to win gold, at age 42, while holding down that job makes her performance so far particularly outstanding.

It should be inspiring, not an occasion to pile on the contempt over a policy decision that was collectively made by cabinet.

Part of it is just timing. The change just took effect this month, a few weeks before the Paralympics started, so it rekindled the argument that has run since February.

It revolves around how the government tried to do two things at once and wound up losing ground on both issues. The budget found $170 million over three years to provide a modest boost (about $77 monthly) in income assistance for disabled people. At the same time, the government decided to smooth out disparities in transportation subsidies.

The subsidy was made equal and uniform across B.C., but at a cost of imposing a monthly fee on thousands of clients who used to get bus passes for free. And the fee ate most of the income-assistance increase. Stilwell appeared confounded throughout by the upset it caused. It was a clumsy bid to maximize the political benefits without realizing what the moves would do to people’s expectations.

There’s still a pre-election chance this problem will be reconsidered. People who are still upset by the move would be better off continuing to work on the case against it, rather than taking cheap shots at a minister just for proving herself a winner in a different sphere.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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