Episode 26 (En anglais): Testimony of a Human Rights Advocate With Lived Experience of Disability

– Juin 2021

This podcast is available on your favourite platforms, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Subscribe, rate, and leave a comment! Please write us to if you wish to receive an email when a new podcast is published.

Episode 26 (En anglais): Testimony of a Human Rights Advocate With Lived Experience of Disability
Broadcast Date: June 23, 2021


In this episode, Professor Philip Bryden, TransCanada Chair in Administrative and Regulatory Law at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law, is interviewing lawyer, human rights advocate, and accessibility consultant Michael McNeely, on his own experience with the justice system as a deaf-blind person. Audio transcript is available below.

Note: This podcast is an excerpt from CIAJ’s National Roundtable on Administrative Law, which took place on June 11, 2021.


  • Michael McNeely, Law Graduate | Human Rights Advocate | Teacher | Accessibility Consultant

Michael McNeely 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 Philip Bryden, TransCanada Chair in Administrative and Regulatory Law at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law

Audio File Transcript

This is In All Fairness podcast, presented by the Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice. This conversation took place at CIAJ’s National Roundtable on administrative law held in June 2021. In this episode, Professor Philip Bryden, TransCanada Chair in Administrative and Regulatory Law at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law, is interviewing lawyer, human rights advocate and accessibility consultant Michael McNeely on his own experience with the justice system, as a deaf-blind person.

Speaker: Professor Philip Bryden
Michael McNeely is the first deaf blind lawyer to graduate from Osgoode Law School. He’s a film critic since 2014. He has a very interesting and diverse background. He’s taught advocacy to Deaf blind clients at the Canadian Helen Keller Centre. Working on completing a documentary on Deaf blind advocates and is an accessibility advocate who works with those in the film, theater, and transportation industries. He was formerly on Sensity’s Board of Directors. And a member of the Toronto committee. He’s had firsthand experience as a complainant at the tribunal. Thank you very much for joining us this morning, Michael. So Michael, I wonder if we could have you begin by giving us some of the background to your experience as a complainant at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

00:02:02 Speaker: Michael McNeely
So, I understand that your first question is about my experiences as complainant. And so, as you may know or you may not know, the University was on strike in 2017. Maybe it’s good that you didn’t go there, Professor Bryden. And I was trying to keep busy because it was my first year of law school and I really felt that I wasn’t learning as much as I could have been. And I was in administrative law at the time with Professor Haigh who is a wonderful man and I hope he’s watching this. But ultimately I was at home, and I didn’t know what to do. And I thought back to some of the frustrations that I was having in my life.

And I thought perhaps I could pursue justice by going to the human rights tribunal and doing an application on at least one of those matters so that I could be learning and engaging with the system at the same time as I was on strike. Or the school was on strike. If I’m speaking too fast, please let me know. And if you can’t understand what I’m saying, please let me know as well.
And so, the first challenge that I thought upon to file a human rights complaint was my issues with Uber. And I believe you can look me up on Google and you can see the CBC article about what happened. Or why I decided to pursue a claim. And I pursued a claim along with my friend Alexander who we both were part of the LPP together, the law practice program, which is in Ontario is a is an alternative to others.

But that was in 2017, that was before I knew Alexander. So, I was doing the form by myself. And I completed it. I believed that I answered all the questions. I stated that the discrimination I was facing was on the basis of my disability. And the issue in question was that because I’m Deaf, I can’t talk on the phone. And Uber was calling me all the time to announce that the ride was here and that kind of thing. But I couldn’t understand them.

And I I would tell them, I would try to tell them that I was Deaf on the phone, and they would hang up on me and drive away. So, after I was potentially late for appointments, or I was placed in unsafe situations with drivers that were mad at me before we even started the ride. So, that is the basis of my compliant. And my complaint is still ongoing. We’re still waiting for the hearing to take place. So, I hope that answers your question, Professor.

00:04:43 Speaker: Professor Philip Bryden
Yes, thank you very much, Michael. Indeed that your experience as a complainant was not everything you expected it to. And perhaps you could talk to us a bit about the challenges that you experienced as a complainant and reflect a bit on some of the steps that the tribunal could have taken to lower or eliminate the barriers that you experienced as a complainant.

00:05:14 Speaker: Michael McNeely
As I mentioned, I started this process in 2017. I didn’t expect it to take this long. But I was probably perhaps a bit naive. And actually, I have to correct myself. I did the form. I did the application in 2018. So, that was the end of the school year. So, that’s my mistake. But as I still didn’t expect it to take this long. And I did one of the first challenges was that I was not allowed to work with a law student. So, that was something that was very frustrating to me. Because all my friends, as you know about law school, are law students. Because frankly, you don’t have any time to go out and make friends that are not in law school.

So, I tried to work with my friend Genevieve, I tried to work with John and Adam, with so many different people. And though they were, of course, very supportive, but when they would call the Law Society of Ontario, the Law Society of Ontario basically said that the qualifications to get to the Bar would be thrown into question if they, quote, represented me. But the problem was that I wasn’t asking for representation. I was simply asking for support from a friend. I thought, you know, maybe naively naively that, you know, we could both work on this case together. And like I saw in the Paper Chase and various movies about law school and being lawyers. I thought we would be spending all night just working on this. But that didn’t happen. Because they were not allowed to work with me.

And so, I felt I felt a barrier. And I feel like this barrier, of course, is now there for everyone. But why should I have this barrier. But why can’t I work with my colleagues? Why is there such a protected space for law students? And to be called lawyers. And why they can’t do anything at this time. I understand, there’s probably liability issues. But still, it was a bit of a slap in my face because I was trying to be an advocate. And at the same time I was being told, you can’t advocate this way. You have to advocate a different way.

So, with that in mind, I did go to the human rights legal support center which is an arm of the HRTO that does provide advocacy. And I did get the assistance of two wonderful lawyers. Ultimately, the first lawyer had to leave. She left after my mediation with the HRTO. My second mediation because she was changing careers. She was going to she was going to school to study journalism. And then the lawyer another lawyer took over. And he took me up to the Case conference. And then he had to leave as well because funding from the HRTO legal support center was being cut and they could not help me with my matter anymore.

So, then I tried again to go back to my friends in law school and was given the same answers. But more people were threatened as well with not being able to get to the Bar. And ultimately at time of desperation, I got in touch with my current lawyer now. And they have been working with me through a concussion. She was hit by a car last Christmas. And she’s struggling through some health issues. So, just to tell you, it’s been a ride.

And, you know, if this happens to me, then what’s happening to all the other people that are not lawyers? Or as Justice Abella described to us, what’s happening to the layperson? Because if this they’re unable to talk about the lingo and unable to talk about administrative law, I can drop words any time. What’s happening to all of these other people who can’t find a lawyer and stick with a lawyer consistently enough? That’s my real concern, Professor.

00:09:41 Speaker: Professor Philip Bryden
Thank you very much, Michael. And I wonder if you could walk us through this message and explain the challenges that you experience in dealing with technology in the way that the HRTO has identified.

00:10:04 Speaker: Michael McNeely
Yes, absolutely. So, I have been told that this matrix may no longer be in effect. If you do an HRTO application. So, I’m happy about that. But still, it was rather concerning when I got it from 2017 and then when I got it from my three other matters that I have been pursuing. So, what it is basically it’s telling you that your Adobe may be out of date. But what was particularly frustrating was that my Adobe was not out of date. I can’t tell you how many evenings I spent going from one computer to another, going from one browser to another trying to fix this. And I even had one of my support people call the HRTO and the person that she talked to didn’t know what was happening either.

So, my frustration was that the HRTO was involved in the process, that they themselves didn’t understand from a technological perspective. And I just wanted to point out a few things with this screenshot. Number one, it tells you to please wait. We could be waiting an hour. It’s not going to change. I could be waiting 5 hours. It’s not going to change. In fact, I don’t think this is working. Nothing is going to happen. Secondly, as you can see, the screenshot, the text at the bottom is very small. I should point out, this is not accessible. This is a troubleshooting page that’s not accessible. I can’t zoom in, I can’t make it bigger. It doesn’t work with screen readers either because PDFs are traditionally not accessible for screen readers. So, it’s a whole bunch of contradictions thrown in my face for somebody applying to the human rights tribunal on the basis of discrimination of disability. And furthermore, it’s a measure that tells me, at least subconsciously, that I’m inadequate. That I don’t measure up. That I don’t have the latest tools or techniques or technology to surf past this obstacle.

And the next point is that I can’t call for support. I don’t even know who to contact. It’s not telling me who to contact. There’s no email address. So, what am I supposed to do? And it is by sheer luck, sheer chance, that I found a way to, firstly, download this document. Not that I would ever want to download the document in the first place. But if I download this document, it magically changes to the form they need to do. But there’s no indication, no warning. So, that’s been part of my recommendations to the HRTO in the last month through some very nice conversations with the associate chair. That we need we need more touch points so that people can talk about the issues that they’re facing with the application. And we need more guides to show all the odds and ends that people will be facing. So, that’s what you want to mention.

00:13:35 Speaker: Professor Philip Bryden
So, in addition to your personal experience with the HRTO, you give device to Deaf blind clients at the Canadian Helen Keller Centre to assist them in advocating more effectively with other administrative agencies. Could you give us some examples of some of the types of agencies that your clients use and the barriers that they’ve experienced in accessing the services provided by these agencies?

00:14:08 Speaker: Michael McNeely
I would just like to say that Michelle Quigg can’t see the PDF that I was talking about. So, maybe if somebody could get that to her. And then I will answer your question now. So, it’s important to realize that Deaf blind people are traditionally facing extremely low employment rates. So, we’re looking at 6% according to the Canadian statistics in Canada. And this is just dis spiriting for anyone to look at. I think in addition to that, you’re looking at people who have been marginalized time and time again by education systems that even before 1970 abused them.

In somewhat of the similar way that residential schools abused Indigenous people, Deaf individuals were also facing higher rates of sexual abuse and physical abuse as well as emotional abuse in boarding schools, in schools for the deaf. And so, I work with seniors, and those are the people I am talking about. Those are the people who have faced a lot of severe challenges in their lives. And one of the challenges is literacy. One of the challenges is communication. And I’m a lawyer now and I experience these challenges even now. So, I can only imagine what challenges they are experiencing when they can’t communicate, or they can’t understand the systems that affect their lives.

And so, I work with clients to simply try to educate them about what their rights and responsibilities are. And then ultimately to be harnessed, that’s all the energy and that’s all the time we have. So, I tell them about their rights and responsibilities. And, you know, they want to have a good life. They want to just leave with the knowledge that they learned something, and they don’t have enough energy to pursue a matter at the HRTO. Which is why I took it upon myself to pursue some matters.
And, you know, even though my name is the respondent, I’m doing it for everyone. So, that’s the short answer and the long answer.

00:16:21 Speaker: Professor Philip Bryden
So, based on that, do you have advice that you give your clients about the challenges they’re likely to experience and how to deal with them? Or is it mainly the case that you’re explaining their rights, but you don’t really have an opportunity to come to grips with the process challenges that they’re likely to face?

00:16:33 Speaker: Professor Philip Bryden
So, based on that, do you have advice that you give your clients about the challenges they’re likely to experience and how to deal with them? Or is it mainly the case that you’re explaining their rights, but you don’t really have an opportunity to come to grips with the process challenges that they’re likely to face?

00:16:48 Speaker: Michael McNeely
It’s hard. Because we need to empower the population that’s being marginalized. And so, when you’re empowering them, you’re teaching and they’re learning. But then the next step is even harder. As a result of COVID, we’re using the technology, talking to the HRTO, coming to terms with how the tribunal makes their decisions. It’s all a lot of work. And you know, it’s hard enough just to do the things that you have to do with a limited ODSP, Ontario disability support payments and with elemented resources. So, for example, Deaf blind people may rely on intervention, which is a service that’s provided for Deaf and blind people to see and hear their environment. But there’s limited hours for that. So, you have 10 hours. 10 hours a week it’s possible. And in those 10 hours are spent doing house cleaning or maintaining your health. Going to doctor’s appointments, doing grocery shopping. And those 10 hours are basically nothing. So, I think it’s a really frustrating because we don’t have enough hours to assist those people. And on top of those limited hours, we don’t have enough hours to give them legal counsel. So, it’s just it’s an issue where I can’t really see a way out of it.

And my advice, I give advice to my people and the people I’m working with. But I work with the HRTO and other administrative tribunals, make the process simpler and more streamlined. Because that would decrease the number of hours needed to explain to them the system in the first place.

00:18:33 Speaker: Professor Philip Bryden
Beyond that general piece of advice, is there anything specific that you would give in the way to advice to administrative agencies to make their services more readily available to the clients that you assessed?

00:18:53 Speaker: Michael McNeely
My belief that all different kinds of disabilities should be accommodated in terms of the communications that could help. So if you’re thinking about test, then you would want the test to be accessible to those people who are using screen readers. Meanwhile, it has to be in plain language because that benefits all of us, but it also benefits people with intellectual and learning disabilities.

00:19:16 Speaker: Professor Bryden

00:19:27 Speaker: Michael McNeely
And that would include videos of what you were saying in the text. So, I think, you know, at least if you’re working out something, you could come up with five or six different ways to get that request. And I think that would be the bare minimum that an administrative tribunal could do in order to be of service to the people that it claims to represent.

There’s just one more thing that I would like to mention, Professor, is that I think it would be very nice to see a system in place that is that comes with reminders for the layperson just like we have as lawyers. But as lawyers, we’re more used to reminding ourselves of deadlines. So, I think the layperson would really appreciate a desktop notification that says, « Mediation in 10 days. Have you done everything you needed to prepare? » And then streamlined to links to the educational and awareness building aspects. So, I’m not asking the HRTO to lose its impartiality or its independence, but I’m asking them to at least, you know, even the playing field by providing resources to people to help them prepare for what is a mediation. What do you expect in a mediation? How is a mediation different from now to what it was last year? That kind of thing.

And then people could just start learning those materials and finding those materials in a much easier place. And then I would also appreciate if there was a tracker. So, you could see a matter. Just like you’re filing income tax or ordering a pizza. You can see how much of the process you have left. I figure that would be motivating for people to see their goals getting closer to the end. And then finally, my last piece of advice while I still have this platform would be that the adjudicators and the mediators talk to both parties about their satisfaction with the process. Because I know Justice Abella was saying that people want to know the decision at the end of the day.

But I feel that it would be worth knowing how they felt about going through this process in the first place. And that could be if it was from the issue at hand. So, in my case, it’s not about you, but in my case, it’s just about me and the other party saying, okay, this process was kind much interesting. They could have done that part a little bit better. And then that kind of feedback could help us with the future conferences of this type and improvements of the tribunals in general.

00:22:13 Speaker: Professor Philip Bryden
So, we have a question here from Athan Hadjis. And he says that recently Parliament adopted the Accessible Canada Act which is intended to eliminate barriers in the federal jurisdiction. Are you familiar at all with this legislation and do you have any thoughts about it?

00:22:30 Speaker: Michael McNeely
Yes, I’m familiar. But to answer your question, I’m just not really seeing enough of it in action at this moment. I’m still experiencing those barriers that I was talking to you about. And I’m still waiting to see the implementation of the reduction in those barriers. So, I really would like everyone to take it seriously that you should communicate the matrix in five different ways just to make sure that matrix gets across to all the different kinds of communicators that we have. And I would also want, you know, recognition of the struggle that it takes for people with disabilities to go through these processes.

00:23:08 Speaker: Professor Philip Bryden
Thank you very much Michael for taking the time today to give us the benefit of your experience and your knowledge. Not just with your clients, but also with organizations like the HRTO to try to help them improve their processes and their ability to serve their clientele. So, I see that there are a number of people in the chat who are giving you their thanks as well.

00:23:37 Speaker: Michael McNeely
Thank you very much for having me. It was an honor and a privilege. And I hope that everyone enjoys the rest of their day at this conference. I will be here as well.

You’ve listened to In All Fairness, A CIAJ podcast. For more information, visit us on our website at

In All Fairness is a Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice podcast channel welcoming representatives from the legal community and exploring how we can all contribute to improving the administration of justice in Canada. Legal professionals will benefit from informed discussions on key issues, essential knowledge and insights to strengthen their practice.

Visit the upcoming programs section of our website or the online library, or contact us if you want to learn more and expand your skills. Numerous programs are available, including customized training.

Questions and suggestions are always welcome. Please write to