Exclusive: Ontario Lt.-Gov. David Onley Says China a Model For Disability Awareness Special

Posted Dec 16, 2008 by Chris Hogg
David Onley
Ontario Lieutenant Governor, David C. Onley, works on a computer at his Queen's Park office.
Photo by Janusz J. Überall,
The last thing you'd expect a politician to admit is how North America could learn something from China when it comes to human rights. In an exclusive interview with David Onley, Lieutenant Governor of the Province of Ontario, he said just that.
This article is part 1 in a two-part series on disability issues. Click here to read part 2.
"We obviously have profound differences with China when it comes to human rights," Onley tells in an exclusive interview in his office at Toronto's Queen's Park. "But with disability, we can learn something from China."
Onley, 58, was stricken with polio as a child, paralyzing him from the neck down. Eventually regaining the use of most of his muscles, Onley today must walk with leg braces and a cane. He's been a long-time supporter and advocate for those with disabilities, and he wants to use his position as Ontario's Lieutenant Governor to help encourage change.
In September, Onley went to China for the Paralympic Games where he represented Canada after Governor General Michaëlle Jean was forced to stay back after an election was called by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Onley and Jintao
David Onley met Chinese president Hu Jintao during a recent trip to China for the Paralympic Games. From left to right: Her Honour, Ruth Onley; David Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario; Chinese President Hu Jintao; Madame Liu, wife of President Hu Jintao.
Photo courtesy Office of the Lieutenant Governor
While Onley admits China certainly is worthy of criticism because of its human rights abuses, he says the Paralympics was a hugely significant event. While the experience may be largely symbolic, China's treatment of the disabled during the Paralympics is a model for all nations.
"Being in China for the Paralympic Games, it was obvious to me they were more important to the Chinese than the regular Olympics because people with disabilities in China are not being served by the government," he says.
Onley says the number of disabled people in China is staggering. The China Disabled Persons' Federation estimates 83 million people in China are disabled. The problem is, he notes, nobody ever sees these marginalized people and the Paralympics helped bring that issue to the forefront.
The Chinese government did just that, investing heavily in upgrading Beijing's infrastructure for the Paralympics: Elevators were added to the subway system, special taxis were made wheelchair-friendly and the main airport was redesigned with $1.7 million worth of ramps, handicapped bathrooms and Braille signs.
"While in China, there was nobody on the streets with a cane, so people were surprised to see me on my scooter," he says. "I was even approached multiple times by people who wanted to buy my scooter. The irony is: It was made in China."
David Onley Lacrosse Faceoff
David Onley, Lieutenant Governor of the Province of Ontario, drops the ball in a ceremonial faceoff during a National Lacrosse League game.
Photo by gperrow
Sitting inside his office back in Toronto, Onley speaks with enthusiasm about how disabled people are viewed worldwide. His eyebrows flutter as his excitement levels shoot up when he discusses China's new stance. Onley says he was proud to see how the Paralympic Games incorporated three main philosophies: transcendence, equality and integration. Those three things, he adds, are philosophies the world should adopt.
"If [U.S. president-elect] Barack Obama were to stand up and say these things, people would applaud," Onley says, referring to the fact it's not surprising to hear these words uttered by the leader of a democratic nation. "But this is China, and it's very surprising to hear a Communist country say this. The Chinese really used the Games to reform and change how disabled people are treated."
One key example to echo Onley's point relates to April's ruling that allowed guide dogs in public places during the Paralympics. That kind of policy was unheard of before 2008.
David Onley
Ontario Lieutenant Governor, David C. Onley, gives a speech during a Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Queen's Park.
Photo by Janusz J. Überall,
Former Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan, who carried the torch in Beijing to represent the city that will play host to the 2010 Winter Paralympics, believes the Paralympics will offer an impacting lasting effect: “This will be the watershed moment where people with disabilities take their place in Chinese society.”
Sullivan was one of 10 Canadians who participated in the Paralympic torch relay and, according to the Canadian Press, many Chinese residents were surprised that a man in a wheelchair was the mayor of a large Canadian city.
Onley believes China's respect for the disabled goes back to its culture's respect for elders. He says that other people living elsewhere in the world should take note.
David Onley
Ontario Lieutenant Governor, David C. Onley talks with kids at Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Queen's Park.
Photo by Janusz J. Überall,
"Boomers are aging and older people are exhibiting the same physical and behavioural characteristics of those who are disabled," he says. "Everyone knows someone who is disabled in some way, and everyone knows someone who is aging. People don't treat disability the same [in North America]."
This article is part 1 in a two-part series on disability. Click here to read part 2.