Mayor (former), City of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Sam Sullivan was born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in 1960. Nestled in the Coastal mountain range and a natural jumping off-point for ski enthusiasts, it would be Vancouver’s mountain that would change his life, and subsequently lead to positive change for thousands of Canadians with disabilities.
Sullivan was injured at the age of 19 in a skiing accident that left him a high-level quadriplegic with no finger movement and only partial use of his wrist extensors. His old life was over. When he got to the bottom of his experience, as he puts it, he figuratively “put a gun to my head, pulled the trigger, and killed [the old] Sam.” He was born again as the Sam Sullivan the world knows today.
While re-building his life at Vancouver’s G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre, Sullivan met head on the constant frustrations that his limited physical condition imposed upon his aspirations to lead an independent life. Sullivan strongly desired to live and participate in his coastal community, concurrent with the political tide and community living movement that sought to de-institutionalize people with disabilities. Liberation was what he was after, and the freedom to do as much by himself and for himself as could be imagined and carried out.
Sullivan, along with friends made while at G.F. Strong, needed help with simple mechanical devices that would radically improve their ability to care for themselves; things as simple as an adapted butter knife so he could make toast by himself; a fridge door opener so he could get his own food. Through contacting local volunteer engineers for help with the fabrication and technical aspects of these simple projects, the Tetra Society of North America was founded.
Sullivan went on to found several more non-profit societies that have made significant improvements in the lives of people with disabilities across North America, including the Disabled Sailing Association of North America which provides opportunities for independent sailing for people with significant disabilities; the British Columbia Mobile Opportunities Society whose “TrailRider” – a revolutionary one-wheeled all-terrain access vehicle – has allowed entry to the deepest backwoods and mountain tops for even people with the most significant disabilities.
Post injury, Sullivan obtained his business administration degree from Simon Fraser University and ran for, and was elected to Vancouver City Council in 1993. He served as city councillor for 12 years; was a member of the steering committee that built Vancouver’s Central Library. As vice president of the Metropolitan Board of Health, he helped introduce Canada’s first 100 per cent smoke-free public places initiative to Vancouver. Sullivan was the first politician in Canada to call for “harm reduction” (in dealing with drug addiction) as an official element of public policy.
Sullivan has received the Peter F. Drucker Award for Innovation for the Tetra Society; the Terry Fox National Award for Achievement; and in March 2005, was invested as a Member of the Order of Canada – this country’s highest honor – for his significant work to enhance the lives of people with disabilities. In November 2005, Sullivan ran for and was elected Mayor of the City of Vancouver.
Recalling his entry into elected politics, Sullivan recounts: “I was asked by a very respected political person named Grace McCarthy [the former deputy premier of the Province of British Columbia] to run for city council. I was involved with a lot of community groups and non-profit organizations, which is a form of political involvement. So getting into politics [as an elected official] was a natural extension of this work.”
Of his presence as a person in public office with a significant disability, Sullivan says, “I think it has reconfirmed that disability issues matter, and it’s hard for me to know , but I assume that people are less likely to bring inaccessible options forward [to city hall] when they know I am there. I think there was a natural skepticism at first [from the electorate about his ability to do the job from a wheelchair], but by trying to do a good job, trying to be reasonable and effective [this has been overcome].
“I don’t consider myself a ‘disabled’ councillor – I consider myself an able councillor. Of course I have a special interest in disability issues because of my personal experience. That would of course color my decision – making process, but I try not to be a ‘one-issue’ politician. I try to make decisions that are for the good of the whole community.
“I think disabled people, just like every other group of people, should get involved in their community as much as they are able, and everyone needs to contribute to the political process in whatever way they can. It could be as an elected official; as a volunteer in political parties, or as a person who gets involved in community groups. There are many ways to contribute to the community. But certainly I believe that political involvement is very important for citizens.”
Sullivan’s key for successfully running for public office: “Developing relationships; getting to know people and contributing to the community; and developing a constituency of supporters.