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Human Rights

Accessibility and inclusion drive MacDonald

When Toronto human rights lawyer Lorin MacDonald decided to limit her practice to helping people with disabilities who have experienced discrimination, she worried that she was boxing herself into a niche with too little work.

“Sadly, that hasn’t been the case,” MacDonald tells Three years on, she has more interest from potential clients than she can handle alone and has taken on an associate to meet the need.

“I’m very busy, because unfortunately, people with disabilities experience a great deal of discrimination in housing, employment, goods and services — as well as any area of law you can think of,” adds MacDonald, who notes that about half of all complaints to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) relate to discrimination on the grounds of disability.    

In one recent case that made headlines across the world, MacDonald acted for a woman denied access to a restaurant’s basement washroom because staff feared she would sue them if she was injured while using the stairs. Her client, who was born with spina bifida and uses a pair of forearm crutches to get around, told the Canadian Press she was humiliated during the interaction with restaurant staff.

MacDonald has a special insight into the experiences of her clients, having been born with profound deafness in both ears. Even as a lawyer appearing in forums such as the HRTO, she says she’s not immune to discriminatory treatment, facing misperceptions with regard to the real-time captioning services that allow her to effectively represent her clients in hearings.

“I need to make arrangements court by court, tribunal by tribunal and city by city, which results in a great deal of wasted time,” she says. “It’s troubling that the very process that I am using to advocate for my clients living with disabilities has not itself been filtered through a disability lens to consider the impact it may have on lawyers and paralegals with disabilities.”

MacDonald says her own experience is part of the reason she’s in such demand.   

“People with disabilities often have trust issues working with the legal profession. They want to come to me because I have a disability, and they know that I get it. There is no need to explain what accommodations they may require,” she says.

“Law is a very bottom-line driven profession, and not always the most welcoming to lawyers or clients who have disabilities. There needs to be a different way of providing legal services when it comes to supporting people with disabilities.”

But the fight for inclusion dates back much further than since MacDonald’s call to the bar in 2010. She strives to embody the values espoused in her favourite quote by Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella: “Indifference is injustice’s incubator. It’s not just what you stand for, it’s what you stand up for, and we can never forget how the world looks to those who are vulnerable.”

At high school in Port Dover, MacDonald adapted to mainstream school life through a combination of strong lip-reading skills, academically-minded friend groups, and hard work, before entering the world of advertising, public relations, and special event management in the 1980s.

“It was a different time and although I was successful, I could see that my career progression was going to be limited by my hearing loss,” she says.  

While working in the non-profit sector, MacDonald says she got some of her first ideas about the value a law degree could bring.

“It can be frustrating in that world, where you’re reacting to laws that are being considered or already in place. I thought maybe I could be more effective if I understood where the law was coming from, and work more from the inside, so to speak,” MacDonald says.

However, it wasn’t until after a traumatic car accident in 1997 left her unable to work during the long period of recovery that she followed through on the plan. MacDonald's lawyer complimented her on her grasp of the proceedings and suggested she apply to law school at his alma mater, Western University. At the time, MacDonald’s thought was, “Sure, how hard can that be?”  

But the challenges kept coming, even after she was admitted as Western's first law student with profound hearing loss in 2004.

“I was 41 when I started, so I was much older than everyone else. I also had this hearing loss that required accommodation, first with sign language interpreters and then a captioner. And after my first year, I was diagnosed with cancer,” MacDonald says.

Fitting her studies in with treatment, she took an extra year and a half to graduate.  

“It never occurred to me to quit,” MacDonald says. “It was a really tough time, but I was supported by the tremendous faculty and classmates who became friends. It was also a blessing in many ways because I gained new empathy from having been through the experience of cancer.

“I also got three times as many legal connections because of the three cohorts of lawyers I had as classmates,” she adds.   

Since then, MacDonald’s plan to get on the inside track of policy has come to fruition, and she was recently consulted by the federal government on its plans to introduce Canada-wide accessibility legislation.

“It was a privilege to be part of that conversation,” she says.

“My motivation is to be as effective as possible in creating change in this country,” adds MacDonald, who is also keen to showcase success stories when she comes across them.

For example, in a video produced in conjunction with Ontario’s provincial government, MacDonald visits London's Grand Theatre, a venue she has supported in their journey to accessibility for people with hearing loss.

MacDonald also made a mark recently with a viral blog post in which she called out those who downplayed the alleged misconduct of a quadriplegic politician because of his disability. She argued that the public must hold anyone who is abusive to a high standard, even if they have a disability. 

“In the course of the ensuing investigation, we must accept that bad behaviour is not limited to the able-bodied. This is the one time that the application of the "disability lens" would result in further harm,” she writes in the post.

MacDonald says her quest for greater inclusion may be boosted over the coming years as the members of the Baby Boomer generation move into retirement and old age.

“I don’t think they’re going to quietly sit at home watching soap operas. They will be working and active well past 70, and they’re going to demand access and accommodation at a higher level than we’ve seen in the past,” she says.

To Read More Lorin MacDonald Posts Click Here
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