Episode 35: Disability Inclusion: Access to Administrative Justice, Post-Secondary Education and Community Activism
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Episode 35: Disability Inclusion: Access to Administrative Justice, Post-Secondary Education and Community Activism
Broadcast Date: October 21, 2021
In this episode, Laverne Jacobs, a professor at the University of Windsor Faculty of Law and a person with physical disabilities, interviews Michael McNeely, who is the first deaf-blind lawyer to graduate from Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. They share thoughts on access to administrative justice for people with disabilities, challenges faced by members of the disability community becoming legal professionals and working as legal professionals, post-secondary education, and community activism.
Audio transcript is available below.
Did you like this content? Listen to Podcast #34 on Barriers to Access to Administrative Justice for People with Disabilities, featuring Lawyer Michael McNeely and Professor Philip Bryden.
- Michael McNeely, Law Graduate | Human Rights Advocate | Teacher | Accessibility Consultant
Michael McNeely is a Family Law Attorney at Manteghi Law. He is the first deaf-blind lawyer to graduate from Osgoode Law School. He has also been a film critic since 2014. He has taught advocacy skills at the Canadian Helen Keller Centre, is attempting to finish a documentary on deaf-blind advocates, and is an accessibility advocate who works with those in the film, theatre, transportation industries. He was formerly on Sensity’s Board of Directors and is a member of the Toronto Accessibility Advisory Committee.
- Professor Laverne Jacobs, University of Windsor faculty of Law
Laverne Jacobs is a Professor of Law at the University of Windsor and a person with disabilities. She researches, writes and teaches actively in the areas of law and disability rights, human rights, and administrative law and justice. Through her research and scholarship, she explores the lived experiences of people with disabilities in relation to the law and aims to improve them. Professor Jacobs has published and lectured widely in Canada and internationally. She is the lead author of several books and articles including the first law and disability textbook in Canada (Law and Disability in Canada (Lexis-Nexis, 2021)) and the Annotated Accessible Canada Act (2021). Dr. Jacobs founded and directs The Law, Disability and Social Change Project, a research and public advocacy initiative housed at Windsor Law. She is also a Co-Director of the Disability Rights Working Group of the Berkeley Center on Comparative Equality & Anti-Discrimination Law.
Dr. Jacobs has received awards for her scholarship and leadership on disability equality, including the Touchstone Award from the Canadian Bar Association in 2021.
Dr. Laverne Jacobs is Canada’s candidate for the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Audio File Transcript
Professor Laverne Jacobs: Hello everyone, my name is Laverne Jacobs. I’m a law professor at the University of Windsor and a person with physical disabilities. I’m also a member of the administrative tribunal committee of the Canadian Institute for the administration of justice (CIAJ). I’m very pleased to be joined today by Michael McNeely, who is the first deaf-blind lawyer to graduate from Osgoode Hall Law School. Michael will be sharing his thoughts with us on access to administrative justice for people with disabilities, and challenges faced by members of the disability community and becoming legal professionals and working as legal professionals. Welcome Michael!
Michael McNeely: Thank you so much for having me, it’s an honor and a pleasure.
Professor Laverne Jacobs: Michael, I wanted to say to you, you know one of the cores research interests that I have as a scholar of administrative law and Disability Studies is in access to administrative justice, and I’m especially interested in ensuring inclusion of people with disabilities in the administrative justice system. In your opinion, as a lawyer, a lawyer from the disability community, how can we ensure that we have accessibility, when it comes to using the administrative justice system?
Michael McNeely: I think we mentioned in my last podcast that it’s a matter of time and resources, but I can elaborate a little bit more on that today. I think, ultimately, access to justice, whenever I hear that I’m thinking about access to time, access to time management, and just the very words; access to justice. I’m thinking, oh my gosh, that’s a lot of work to do. That’s a lot of effort to put in just to access something. And I’m not sure if it’s because of my experience of if or it’s just because of those words themselves. But I think, ultimately, when you’re looking at people trying to access services from a tribunal one has to think about all the other things they’re not doing. They’re not buying groceries, they’re not meeting new friends, they’re not finding shelter for themselves. They’re missing out work if they have any work. And I think that it’s important to put in perspective. Because ultimately, I’m visioning a access to justice model in which we use technology on our own time and in our own way without necessarily being limited by for example, limitation periods or having to go to court at a certain time, because that time may not be great for everybody. And so I think when we look at access for people with disabilities, we really need to look at their own schedules and to ask them what they need, and I don’t think we’re doing that.
Professor Laverne Jacobs: Thank you so much, I agree with you. I think that there are a myriad of issues surrounding what you’ve called access to time when it comes to working with people with disabilities and respecting the time of disabilities. I find it really interesting that you place time within core beside the concept of access to justice. Do you have any specific experiences that you might want to share dealing with access to time or access to justice?
Michael McNeely: Well I was a high school teacher before I became a lawyer and so I’ve done some research in both education and in law, and one of the things that was recommended to me in regards for online courses for students with disabilities is providing a time limit or provide an idea of how much time people should be spending before they go get help from an outside, outside source. So, for example, you may have given homework to your students. And you may have said, for example, this should take you three hours to do, it should take you one hour to do the reading it should take you two hours to do the essay or to answer this short answer questions. I think that’s the kind of guideline we need for people with disabilities, working within the administrative justice system is that they should know how long it should be taking them. And then that way, if it’s taking them too long there could also be links to resources and to further assistance, such as some duty counsel or legal aid that can help them manage their time.
Because right now when I look at the HRTO (Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario) form, which is what we’re talking about because I live in Ontario. When I look at the Human Rights Tribunal form, I have no idea how long it should take me. I know now that it takes me this amount of time because I’ve done it a few times. But, you know, I don’t have any of the tips and tricks that maybe an administrative lawyer may have from having done it for 20-30 years. So, I kind of wish that there was a roadmap. I kind of wish that there was a guidepost. And I wish that there were resources that I could go to for assistance when I’m having trouble or when I feel like I’m struggling..
Professor Laverne Jacobs: Thank you, Michael. Oh yes, I really liked that idea, the idea of having some sort of guideposts and, you know, just some sort of knowledge of how long things should take and further navigational tools I think that navigational tools generally are helpful for accessing administrative justice but particularly when we come to people with disabilities, they can be, they can play a significant role.
You know you started off by giving me an example that related a bit to education, and I want to just turn our focus a little bit to education. You know, for members of the disability community, access to education is fundamental and whether we can be successful in achieving our professional goals. More and more attention is being turned to post-secondary education and accommodations, so we’re finally beginning to see for example in the CRPD (Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) there’s, you know, a right to tertiary education and we’re finally beginning to see I think a bit of movement on that. Having recently completed your law degree, what are your thoughts on post-secondary education, accommodations and just generally access to professional education?
Michael McNeely: I think my experience with education has been bumpy. So back in 2006, when I applied to go to Queens University for my undergraduate, I was told by disability services that perhaps I should go to Ryerson instead. And that was just, the scene was set, basically with an idea that maybe I’m better off elsewhere. And I’ve never really overcome my imposter syndrome or the fact that I’m the wrong place at the wrong time. Because in 2006 I wanted to major in Film Studies, but I was told that I couldn’t because there wasn’t enough close captioning, and this was ridiculous because I had the movies that they were watching in the first year film studies class, I had captioning at home. I was told that they do have captioning at the university. And so even those, even though this is something that have nothing to do with law. It’s the feeling of exclusion that never goes away it’s the feeling of, we don’t, we don’t appreciate you, we don’t want you here. And it’s easier somewhere else, it’s easier over there, so it’s not, not in my backyard, you should go over there. And that stopped me from feeling any source of pride about where I was, one in sort of belonging. Even when I did my graduation ceremony in 2010, 2011 and 2013, respectively. For my, teacher’s college, and for my Master of Education, it was my father that needed to ask for transcripts of all three of those graduation ceremonies for me. I didn’t ask, I didn’t, I didn’t feel enough energy to ask even though I knew it was my right to ask. I figured that it should have just gone without saying. Of course, you know, I was lost, amongst the crowd of students that were graduating those days.
So, let’s focus now on law school, and I went to law school in 2017 to 2020. I had some, I had some advantages because first of all I was a mature student, I had been returning to the school and I knew kind of what to expect and I figured, an older law school should be the best place for accessibility, because of course they had to follow the accessibility laws but again it was also in a little bit of ways, um, exclusionary and not all accessible as I thought it would be. I think, first year of law, everybody knows those (stories) but for people with disabilities, it’s even more difficult because what we’re being taught at those law classes is that people with disabilities are disadvantaged. And people with disabilities, you know, if you, if you have a disability you’re mad and you should sue, because whoever put you in that situation, we can pay you damages. So for example, you know, towards class, we talked about all the personal injuries. And you know, Carla, oh poor Carla is a paraplegic now, because you know, Debbie and her friends wanted to have a party and they were drinking and driving, and they ran over poor Carla. And so, what can we give damages for her, life conditions or whatever. So again it just, it just made me feel that people with disabilities are not valued and wasn’t really given any, any role model except David Lepofsky (Canadian lawyer and disability advocate), who is a big leader at Osgoode, I guess, I guess, in short, I didn’t really feel like I belonged just as a person with a disability. And I felt like every class I needed to take, I needed to ask for accommodations, 3 or 4 times before, I was heard. Some professors of course were great, other professors just didn’t appear to understand what my accommodation needs were.
And so I’m here today with my intervenor, Sarah, and she was helpful to me, and instrumental to me getting through law school, at least for my mental health, because I did have one professor in my third year told the entire class that I used the bathroom too many times in one day, and just from hearing that made me realize that I was being infantilized. And it didn’t have anything to do with my disability, of course, but even if it did, it wasn’t any of her business. And she shouldn’t be talking to the entire class about my bathroom needs. And so thankfully the rest of my class was a little bit more open minded than she was and they, they all commented on the fact that she shouldn’t have done that. But then again, I don’t know if I’m just rambling all over the place, but in my third year, that’s when Covid hit. And so, I was basically exposed to the debate about whether or not students should be going back to in person classes. And some of my classmates, some of the people I thought were my friends, they were actually espousing rhetoric, to the point that if you don’t go to class, you shouldn’t make it in the marks. If you don’t go to class, you fail. And to me it just made me realize that many of my classmates had no understanding about how people with disabilities were actually living their day to day lives because if we went to class there was a chance that we would get covid. And if we got covid there was a high likelihood that we would die. So, it was a hard third year. I’m frustrated because, you know, we didn’t really get to close that chapter we didn’t, we didn’t get to have any lessons learned, because there’s still covid going on today. So, we all graduated, two years ago, we graduated, those people that would want us to die. There’s no other word for it, that was the kind of debate that we were having in their message boards, because people were saying, you know, if you don’t go to class, you don’t deserve the marks and some other people didn’t have any computers or technology at home, in fact one of my classmates was homeless. It was just like, whatever, if you’re not in class you don’t get the marks. So we had this petition thing, and I think university of Windsor beat us to the pass grade thing, but we were very behind, which was surprising to me for such a liberal, liberal University. And it was just reiterating the fact that everybody was being competitive with each other. Everybody was trying to get on the learning, sorry, trying to get on the graduating curve. So, someone with an A was deemed to be better than somebody with a C, but at least because I was a mature student, I didn’t buy into that. So I think that’s, that’s basically my random assortment of thoughts to answer your question right now.
Professor Laverne Jacobs: Thank you. Thank you, Michael. Thank you for sharing such, such personal and often painful experiences. You know I sometimes say that, you know, it’s really a shame that there’s people with disabilities in order to bring about change we have to a A) go through experiences like this and B) have to share them, you know, so publicly and you’ve raised a number of really important and central concepts so the idea of, you know, being competitive versus being compassionate, I think that’s really a central idea that, that’s come through. How can we ensure that we have more compassionate students, you know, whether they’re law students or students of other faculties. The idea of exclusion is another one that I think is really one matter that a lot of people face and speak to me about so how can we make sure that people are brought in and seeing positive images and just having a better understanding of how people with disabilities live I think is really important. I mean I think that it should be something that we bring into our curriculum and our, you know, our ways of knowing that at law school. So thank you for raising this because I think that it points to a number of, a number of issues and a number of ways that it would be wonderful to have social change come about. I’d love to see these types of things change. And so thank you very much for for all of that, um, you know, this brings me to another question that I have and it’s a question about community activism within the disability community. You know, in your opinion, does community activism play an important role in the disability community when it comes to accessing justice?
Michael McNeely: Yes, but first let me, let me back up a little bit with the education aspect. Access to education, of course, is fundamentally tied in with access to funding to go to those schools and to go to those universities in question. The legal profession is seen as higher than other professions, and as a result, I think we’ve come to be complacent with a number of challenges that it takes to get to that profession. So, for example we have the LSATs, we have the learning curve, the grading curve, I should also say the learning curve too cause that’s a thing and we have this competition we were talking about. And so I think when we look at in terms of community activism, you’ve got all these people that went to law school and you’ve got all these people that suffered, for lack of a better word, to get to their education. And then they’ve got all these community activists that may not have gone to law school. They may not have even gone to any post-secondary at all. So the question is, If we’re not trained in law school, of how to engage with these community activists, then we’re going to be at kind of a disconnect between the people that have gone to law school and the people who are grassroots community based. And so I wish, I wish that I had questions in law school about how to interact with grassroots communities.
So one of the things that I was working on with Sarah before Covid struck was going to protests in Queens Park. And so when I went to a protest and that was a great experience. But at the same time, I didn’t know how to ask for accommodations during the protest, because it’s not like there’s a form that you can fill out. I wanted to know discreetly where I could go to the washroom if I needed to go to the washroom. And then also with my deaf-blindness I struggle with dizzy spells. And so, I wanted to know where a safe place would be if I had a dizzy spell. Because you know we’re going around and around in Queens Park and, you know, thankfully the police have been cooperative, but I know that’s not always the case, right? So, I wanted to find a way to take care of myself, while also trying to protesting at the same time. So, I think in those in those early days, according to the protest, I was starting to learn about the kinds of things I would need to engage in community activism. And another thing that was pivotal to my growth as a human being was being able to go to Sundance during the premiere of Crip Camp which ironically was not captioned, because the captioning didn’t work but I still met with the disability activists from that movie, including Judy Heumann, and what I learned was there was so much love and so much respect, and so much understanding, and so much compassion that you know the fact that you showed up meant that you were loved. But even if you didn’t show up of course you were still loved, but all you had to do was to show up. And you were automatically be accepted and appreciated for who you were. And you know, if you said you needed to go to the bathroom anyone would understand and they would help, help you go find it, it was just the opposite of what I had been dealing with in Toronto. And so I’m wondered where was this the whole time? You know, where was this, just, fountain of understanding for our activism here in Canada because I didn’t experience any of it except for the people that I knew personally. Like Sarah, I understand that she, she connected with me on the activist level, but that was because I knew her personally, so I wanted to know, you know, how can I engage with other people if I don’t know them? And how do I know that they understand me as who I am. Those are some of the questions that time with the access to education because the access to education should be training us to become compassionate and activist lawyers as well, if that’s what we choose, right, because of course not everybody wants to be an activist lawyer. But this shouldn’t stop them from being activist lawyers.
Professor Laverne Jacobs: Thank you, I agree with that. And, you know, I think it’s so important to have compassion and understanding within activism, so you know your description of, of being with the activists in Queens Park who were not thinking about how to, to bring in people who have different experiences, people who have disabilities, etc. I think that’s something that needs to be taught to those who are going to become activists just generally. I think that, you know, one thing about community activism that I’ve always thought is that it really is in Canada an opportunity to connect with other people with disabilities. So, sometimes people say they don’t want to be activists, but I think that there should always be a space for activism. If activism is understood as, as making change, you know, fighting for working towards change. So I think activism can be in a classroom, you know, just being taught about how to make change in a humane and compassionate way, it can be in a project. I think that there are many different spaces for activism and that activism kind of runs on a spectrum you know from formal activism, where maybe you have an organization and intervenor to less formal instances where you’re engaging with other people who are you know all moving towards the same maybe they’re helping you strategize all moving towards the same kind of goal of social change.
Michael, let me ask you. I wanted to ask you your thoughts on the law or the laws that exist in the province to improve the experiences of people with disabilities, so we have you know the Human Rights Code and you’ve mentioned a bit about your experiences before the Human Rights Tribunal. We also have accessibility legislation. What are your thoughts on the laws that are here? Are they working?
Michael McNeely: I believe one of the key issues about the law, it is the consultation piece, it’s required under law to consult with people with disabilities, but we don’t have any, we don’t have any guidelines about how the consultations should take place. So, I could say, you know, I’m just going to email Dr. Jacobs and if she doesn’t get back to me in five minutes, at least I tried, I tried to consult. She’s a person with a disability, so I consulted. She didn’t get back to me. I think it’s this kind of, this kind of talking wasting time and it’s detracting from the overall legislation. Because I think there needs to be more guidelines into how to properly consult with people with disabilities, because for example if you are consulting with people who are blind, it doesn’t say that you’re going to make the documents accessible for them, which I feel like is a great oversight. So, so I feel like there’s a few new loopholes that can make it seem that the government is actually consulting when they’re just doing the face level analysis.
And, you know, and the question is, should we be, we should be paying people with disabilities to provide their expertise and their knowledge, because we’re asking them essentially to do emotional labor, and this is something that Sarah has helped me remember. Ok, ultimately, your volunteerism that is all well and good and fine, but it’s taking advantage of, to the point where people with disabilities are expected to volunteer to, to prove their worth, as people who are capable of having jobs in the workforce. Yet, they are not paid as people who are capable of having jobs in the workforce. The spirit of volunteerism needs to go, and consultations need to be properly funded and properly structured in such a way that there’s so many different voices that you can get, because I can tell you, I can count. So many times, where a defensive government official has said: “well we’ve consulted, but we didn’t hear that.” Well excuse me, I’m telling you now! So, you consult but I’m telling you this, you didn’t hear. So, keep consulting, because you’re not done. You shouldn’t be done consulting. Because there’s probably a lot of people with disabilities that haven’t heard about the consultation opportunity. So, they need a chance to talk as well. And also, you know, just because you speak to one person with a disability or one group of people with disabilities doesn’t mean that they’re monolith, for example there’s just a lot of different viewpoints. And so, I often just end up asking, you know, did you consider the needs of the autism community, did you consider the needs of the deaf-blind community, did you consider the needs of those who use wheelchairs. I keep going, I keep going, I keep going. And it’s annoying because I’m just reading off a list of all the people they should have consulted with, but they didn’t because they couldn’t find any of those people, but like, did you even try? Yeah, I think, I think, you know, basically you can find that my inkling, my frustration is with the consult, with the consultation piece, because it sounds great on paper, but it needs to actually function. Because I can tell that the people who are writing these laws are mostly not disabled themselves
Professor Laverne Jacobs: Thanks for that Michael and you know your comments on the consultation piece are very interesting to me, I’m actually working on the consultation piece of the various accessibility laws that have popped up in some of the provinces including in Ontario and at the federal level. So looking quite closely at how those consultations have worked and doing some archival examinations as well. So, I do hear what you’re saying and I find your comments to be very, very interesting.
Michael McNeely: They just one thing is not disclose it, you know what I mean. I think, I think you can just keep consultation forever. And I think, I think that would be that would be a nice gesture from the government parties to say “you’re welcome, you’re welcome to come in at anytime, even if you want to talk about something that happened in 2010, we’ll hear you, we’ll hear what you have to say.” Because you know as a lawyer, I found that I spend a lot of my time listening to other people and validating their experiences. It’s not that I have to come up with a solution. And you know, ideally that would be nice but sometimes I can’t, you can’t come up with a solution about what somebody needs to do when they when they lost their jewelry or when they were angry at their child last week. So I just listen to them. And I feel like, you know, that would go a long way if people actually felt that they were listened to.
Professor Laverne Jacobs: Yeah, I agree with that. Michael, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me and speak with us today. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. In part as a member of the disability community it’s really wonderful to have other members of the disability community who are in law to speak with. So, thank you.
Michael McNeely: Thank you very much for having me, and I hope that this is just the beginning of our friendship, and we’ll have lots of work to do in the future.
Professor Laverne Jacobs: I agree. Thanks again and take care.
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