A Viceral Push For Better Access

Ontario's Next Lieutenant-Governor Calls On Employers To Create More Inclusive Workplaces

August 4, 2007

His mobility limited by polio, David Onley had already overcome formidable challenges - so he was not about to be defeated by a bean-bag chair.

Still, it did cross Mr. Onley's mind that he might have difficulty making a dignified exit after CITY-TV executive Moses Znaimer offered him an on-air position at double his previous pay as a radio announcer.

"I was really trying to be as cool as I could," Mr. Onley recalls of that day in Mr. Znaimer's downtown Toronto office in November, 1984. But there "were no particular chairs in the room - Moses had bean-bags," Mr. Onley says.

"I was sprawled there, and I had already concluded that I was not going to be able to get up and would probably spend the weekend there."

As Mr. Onley was still calculating how to solve the bean-bag chair conundrum, and only after the job had been offered, the CITY-TV chief casually gestured to Mr. Onley's leg braces and asked "what's all this about?"

This week, with passion and humour, Mr. Onley described that somewhat-bizarre day as the day that transformed his life - and, Mr. Onley believes, set the course for his upcoming installation as Ontario's 28th lieutenant-governor, a post he assumes next month.

Mr. Onley made his comments at a private meeting with executives and employees of Bank of Montreal, where he recounted the factors that led to his successful broadcasting career, and now to the lieutenant-governor's suite, which the provincial government is currently scrambling to make more accessible.

His message was fairly simple: It doesn't take a lot, for either employers or co-workers, to create more inclusive and accessible workplaces.

"We have to be willing to see the ability, and not the disability, and in so doing, it becomes possible to change lives for the better."

Mr. Onley's words were translated into sign-language by an interpreter, and his speech was also displayed, in big print, on a screen in the front of the room to accommodate the bank's hearing-impaired employees.

There was a woman with a guide-dog, and several employees used wheelchairs to make their way to the lunch meeting and to later return to their desks.

He was speaking to the converted, Mr. Onley noted, adding that far more employers need to follow the bank's example to make any sort of headway in reducing the 60-per-cent unemployment rate for adult Canadians with disabilities.

Mr. Onley said Mr. Znaimer's attitude as an employer and his "ability to see beyond the disability" was an exception then, and remains an exception to this day.

As the cameras captured his canes, braces and stiff-legged gait on CITY-TV every night, Mr. Onley said, "the phones started to ring, the letters started to come in, and that continued for years and years."

He became a role model for countless others with disabilities, and it was in his capacity as an advocate that Mr. Onley was invited to speak to the BMO executives and the bank's affinity groups representing employees with disabilities this week.

For all the new standards requiring workplaces to be more accessible and for all the new adaptive technology to assist the hearing-impaired, the visually impaired and those with mobility issues, employment prospects for Canadians with disabilities have hardly improved in the past two decades, he said.

Mr. Onley Hopes He Can Use The Influence Of His New Office To Change His Situation.

The biggest barrier that people with disabilities face is often not their own physical or mental limitations, but the attitudes of others - the low expectations, the stereotypes, the active discouragement from pursuing their dreams, he said.

The Winnipeg-based Canadian Centre on Disability Studies reported in a 2004 study that "attitudinal barriers and discrimination regarding people with disabilities are still very prominent in the world of work."

In the face of such systemic barriers, people with disabilities have to be strong, courageous and persistent in pursuing their educational and career goals, the centre said in its report.

But there will not be a significant improvement in job prospects without a much more concerted effort by governments and employers, it added.

Mr. Onley said he could not have succeeded without the unflagging support of others - family, co-workers, employers, friends and childhood heroes, like former NHL goalie Johnny Bower, who once sent an autographed photo and letter encouraging Mr. Onley to overcome his disability.

Mr. Onley said that letter of encouragement made a profound difference in his life.

Mr. Znaimer, by the simple - yet radical - act of hiring a man with a visible disability and putting him on air in 1984, allowed Mr. Onley to achieve his potential.

And when Mr. Onley, in a moment of doubt, wondered if he was only offered the job because CITY-TV was intent on hiring minorities, his mother had some bracing advice:

"Well, God knows you've been turned down for enough jobs. For heaven's sake, just take it."

Access Denied

Source: Canadian Centre on Disability Studies

Canadians with disabilities still face significant barriers in their quest for employment. Here are some of the factors that help - or hinder - disabled people from landing meaningful jobs and working to their potential.

Obstacles To Employment:

Reasons For Success:

Source: Students with Disabilities: Transitions from Post-Secondary Education to Work, a report by the Canadian Centre On Disability Studies.

Taken from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20070804.RCOACH04/TPStory/Business.

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