Exclusive: Ontario Lt.-Gov. David Onley Dispels Myths on Disability Special

Posted Dec 16, 2008 by Chris Hogg
David Onley
Ontario Lieutenant Governor, David C. Onley, at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Queen's Park.
Photo by Janusz J. Überall,
Ontario Lieutenant Governor David Onley is fired up. A disabled man for most of his life, he is working to encourage people to shed myths about disabilities and start enacting real change. Disability, he says, is much more than a cane or a wheelchair.
This article is part 2 in a two-part series on disability. Click here to read part 1.
Digital Journal -- Digital Journal has known Onley for about five years, yet we've never seen him so passionate and outspoken.
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 Lieutenant Governor for the Province of Ontario to educate the public about issues faced by those who are disabled.
It's been more than a year since Onley took office yet the changes are already obvious. The building in which he works, ironically, was not even accessible by wheelchair. To reach his office, Onley had to use a separate door and travel through the legislative cafeteria. That is changing, he said, as the building undergoes renovations.
A former news anchor and reporter, Onley was also a regular contributor to In July 2007, Onley was proclaimed the next Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. A few days after his installation, he granted an exclusive in-depth TV interview (see below, runs 17:18):
In a private follow-up interview with, Digital Journal met Onley at his "temporary office" in Queen's Park in downtown Toronto. The office is temporary because workers bang and crash just outside his window, doing modifications to the outside of the building. Despite the construction, Onley's ad-hoc room is still nicer than most executive offices; long drapes guard the windows; a massive presidential-sized desk sits in the middle of the room, a few papers are stacked neatly in one corner and a computer monitor, keyboard and mouse occupy the other; and the ceiling seems to stretch upward endlessly.
He sits comfortably on his motorized scooter, sipping coffee and using gestures like an orchestra conductor, marking the tempo of his passionate conversation.
We're talking about myths and taboos surrounding disabilities, and Onley starts citing stats and examples as though his brain were hardwired into Wikipedia.
Onley says 15.5 per cent of Ontario's population is disabled, making them the largest single minority group in the province. That is up 2 per cent in the last five years. Onley believes that is a result of more people reporting disabilities to Statistics Canada surveys because taboos are slowly being removed.
David Onley With Her Majesty the Queen
The Honourable David C. Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, and his wife Ruth meet with Her Majesty The Queen at Buckingham Palace.
Photo courtesy Office of the Lieutenant Governor
He also says the issue of disability is increasingly on the radar because people today have increased lifespans and greater risks of potential accidents. He believes many boomers will eventually face some form of disability in their lifetime and that is why North America, namely Ontario, needs to do something about it.
"There are far too many myths when it comes to disability and the ways in which the disabled are viewed by others," he said. "The biggest problem for the disabled is employment. The unemployment rate among those who are disabled is five times higher than the average person, and employers need to know the myths and misconceptions are not true."
Onley said the biggest fear among employers is that hiring a disabled person will cost a company a lot of money and time. He said employers believe disabled people will take more sick days, or the company will be forced to make modifications to infrastructure, such as adding ramps or special desks. Myths like these need to disappear, he says.
"In Ontario, 50 per cent of employers will actually have no cost associated with hiring a disabled person," he said. "Furthermore, 45 per cent of employers incur a one-time cost of less than $500 to make a modification such as getting software that has magnification, or text-to-voice technology, or a bigger computer monitor."
Onley reiterated this idea in a recent public address when he said, "Every study carried out on disability in the workplace has shown that workers with disabilities have high levels of performance and retention, combined with low levels of absenteeism. They are also expert learners, quick to come up with innovative ways to solve problems and accomplish tasks."
David Onley
Ontario Lieutenant Governor, David C. Onley, with his wife Ruth at Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Queen's Park.
Photo by Janusz J. Überall,
Onley believes employers are missing out on opportunities to hire skilled people who can propel a business forward. He says the public should stop seeing disability as inability, and gives several examples of business success stories where a disabled person played a vital role.
"At Ted Rogers' funeral, two speakers talked about him being legally blind," Onley said. "And look how successful Rogers has been." Onley also gave examples of as Terry Fox or Stephen Hawking. "In a job interview, an employer shouldn't be looking from the waist down."
Onley is using his position in government to draw attention to disabilities, lobbying companies to get more actively involved with those who are disabled. He thinks employers should hire disabled applicants or make things more accessible to those who have disabilities.
A prime example is inaccessible buildings. While some public or large buildings are outfitted with wheelchair-accessible ramps, there are still too many homes that are unfriendly to those in wheelchairs, or designed poorly for the elderly.
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,
"If you're a home builder or developer and 15.5 per cent of your potential customer base is disabled, why would you not think about ways to incorporate accessibility into building design?" he asks rhetorically. "In tough economic times, you can't just write-off that much of your potential customer base."
To really hit his point home, Onley tells me about shopping excursions with his wife Ruth. He says there are occasions where he doesn't feel like going into a store with her so he sits in the car, waits and watches. What he sees, however, is proof that accessibility affects everyone.
"Human behaviour is very interesting," he said. "If you are outside a hotel or store, just watch as 90 per cent of able-bodied people use a wheelchair ramp instead of stairs to get into the building. It's simply easier and you never hear of someone falling up or down a ramp. It just shows you how important accessibility is for everyone, not just the disabled."
Onley is now focusing on using the Web to continue his work and highlight issues facing the disabled, as well as providing general information on the government and his position as Lieutenant Governor.
David Onley
Ontario Lieutenant Governor, David C. Onley, browses through the historic section of the Lieutenant Governor's website.
Photo by Janusz J. Überall,
"We've just launched a new website that is a work in progress," he said. "We want to reach out to young people on the Internet to educate them about this office and government in general. We will continue to develop it to really create a resource for everyone."
Onley finished our meeting with an example he regularly gives in speeches, citing a man named Roger Crawford who was born with only partially developed hands and shortened arms yet went on to become a star tennis player and certified coach with the United States Tennis Association.
Onley heard Crawford make a motivational speech and believes Crawford summed it up perfectly when he said, "The only difference between you and me is that you can see my handicap, but I can't see yours. We all have them. When people ask me how I've been able to overcome my physical handicaps, I tell them that I haven't overcome anything. I've simply learned what I cannot do - such as play the piano or eat with chopsticks - but more importantly, I've learned what I can do. Then I do what I can with all my heart and soul."
This article is part 2 in a two-part series on disability. Click here to read part 1.