This interview features Mr. David Shannon, whose spinal cord injury led to quadriplegia, but never stopped him from achieving his dreams. He’s had an illustrious career as an author, activist, lawyer, policy-maker, human rights commissioner, accessibility advisory council founder, first quadriplegic to the North Pole (and accessible parking sign planter!) — and so much more. In recognition of his lifelong work, David was inducted into the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame, and granted some of the highest citizen honours – the Order of Ontario and Canada.
In this interview, David shares that he believes there is a very thin line between people with disabilities, and those without; and that the solutions are often extremely simple. The biggest barriers are often attitudinal — the insidious, subtle lowered expectations of people with disabilities, and the resultant social exclusions. These ultimately lead to what David terms as ‘learned subordination’, thus resulting in people with disabilities internalising these messages and not meeting their full potential. While David has sat on countless committees and boards to advise on policy, he emphasises that laws and legislation are not change unto themselves, but vehicles of awareness and education which can ultimately lead to socio-structural changes that can be, but need not necessarily be, accompanied by law. A common theme throughout the interview was David’s emphasis on the importance of love, relationships, and recognising the common humanity that exists across individuals — hence his humble self-professed identity as not just an advocate for disability rights, but the preservation of dignity and the goodness of the human condition!
This interview was conducted on January 11th, 2018 by Maggie Huang and Anusha Reddy. The interview was transcribed by Aditi Ladha, with question development assistance by Rahul Bajaj. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
1. You’ve had such an illustrious career as an author, activist, lawyer, policy-maker, board member Order of Ontario and Canada, Human Rights Commissioner, first quadriplegic to get to North Pole. There’s just so much that we can say about you. So we didn’t really know where to begin and we were hoping that you could introduce yourself and how you would like to portray your own identity.
Well, thank you so much and thank you for starting with the most difficult and largest question. Maybe you’re trying to stump me, eh? Right off the bat? (laughs)
I would’ve hoped if it was boiled into a short statement, that I am an advocate for not just disability rights but, preservation of dignity and the goodness of the human condition. In your question, you outlined my curriculum vitae to be honest, and that theme has driven the work I’ve done till date.
I’ve seen my work through the prism of disability due to a spinal cord injury, now nearly 37 years ago. Through this prism, I’ve seen that the answers, and solutions are truly much easier than we allow ourselves to socially construct. The solutions are extremely simple if they are boiled down to their essence. And I’ve felt that very strongly ever since my accident because the day before my accident, I was no different than the day after, you know- my compulsions, my passions, my interests, my dreams.
My accident was shortly after my 18th birthday and everything I wanted to do the day before my accident remained the same the day after, and a year after. That never changed. I had a very strong sense that pursuing those dreams should be just as easy as at any time in my life, and truly, so many of the barriers were either too complicated, or socially constructed, because the answers were really, really very simple.
2. Could you please elaborate a little bit more on specifically the accident and the nature of your disability just so that our reader can understand?
Yes. I was playing rugby and I had just gone out on trial to a varsity rugby team. Many people would know the game of rugby, and how you have a scrum. All the players will lock their shoulders and heads together to try to achieve the session of a ball that’s thrown into a scrum. Well as our heads and shoulders were locked together, the scrum collapsed, and everybody fell down. I fell forward with the players behind me continuing to drive forward, so I fell head first into the ground with the players behind me, unable to really stop their momentum. That broke my neck at the fifth vertebrae, a C5 level injury. I now use a power wheelchair. I’m paralysed from the chest down in terms of mobility. It’s affected my arms and hand movement and obviously with that, because it was a complete break, also my leg movement.
The other thing that might be overlooked, especially when you talked about that more acute, early phase is trying to then answer the question, “How the heck am I going to live? How am I going to have a lifestyle? How do I get up in the morning and get assistance getting dressed? Do I get an apartment or a home? What about family life? Will I find happiness? Will I find love?” Along with questions about school and work, these questions were certainly predominant for me at the early stage. This was true for everyone I met across the world who has a significant disability. The difference is if you do have love, if you have support systems in your life.
3. That was such a profound comment. Could you speak a little bit more about your early transition post the accident? About how it impacted not only personal life but also your education, your career path and your aspirations afterwards?
I believe that what I’m doing now, is something very similar, to what I would’ve been doing even if I did not have my injury. I am very, very happy and feel fortunate to be able to say that because I know it’s not true for many people with significant disabilities. Certainly lost a year of school. I had to change the place where I was living. At that time I was in the Toronto- Waterloo area and that was where I thought I would be living. Although I was born in Thunder Bay, I grew up in Halifax, so I really thought I’d be transitioning to Toronto and have a life in Toronto. The only place that I could find supportive living services and an accessible apartment was in Thunder Bay. So I moved to Thunder Bay and fortunately I did have family here.
However, in terms of a duality, I think that I was also…you know it was new, I was so young that there was a lot of naivety and I mentioned that I still had the same goals, same dreams and I went right back to school. I think that was very important for me. My accident was in September of ‘81. By July of ‘82, I was right back in school and taking my first course. I think it was very important to get right back at it or there could be other perceived barriers that could creep in and delay my getting right back at it. I think that was critical to getting restarted.
4. In one of your interviews you discussed how the Court houses weren’t wheelchair accessible. Could you share a bit more about your experiences throughout law school and your early legal career, in terms of challenges and accommodations that you received?
Oh I still remain shocked by that, because I was talking about the Supreme Court of Canada. Its not accessible! It is not accessible through the front. We have to take some kind of a dark passage through the back of the building to get into the Supreme Court of Canada!
The National Capital Commission is about to spend a million of dollars on renovations in Parliament Hill and the Supreme Court. I truly hope that they will ramp the front steps. Those barriers still remain.
The undergraduate year, again there’s the duality. There were specific barriers. We always had really tough winters and there were no tunnels, or the tunnels that would connect each building on campus had steps. So if you used a wheelchair you had to go upground. Now that’s been remedied now, and you can pretty much get to any building on that campus through underground, but these were just some of the daily barriers.
And then the other big one was transportation to and from school. That was difficult because I would use accessible transportation which was either late or didn’t show up, so that caused me to either be late or miss classes and put me behind. It was very scary, I had to sort of do double work at home, in order to keep up with my classes. That was a big one. However the other side of that duality was really, the support of students, support of professors, and the wonderful, supportive learning environment.
5. In the ‘80s, adaptive technology was still developing. Can you describe to us how you managed to take notes for your classes or give your exams? Do you use text to speech technology today for everyday communication?
I tried so many different ways of troubleshooting, because at that point I had few options to take notes and to keep up with the lectures. A fellow student could take notes with carbon paper. That was helpful, but one of the difficulties was, they were taking notes with their own style. I would read off them but I wasn’t able to take notes on my own. Back at my home, I could write with a pen in my mouth, which was very slow, but at least I was able to do some work. I would dictate some essays. Most often though I would write with a pen in my mouth – in that time, we didn’t type much. There weren’t laptops and tests on computers. The other one I tried was to tape record the classes, and then transcribe them later. That was difficult because often, it would involve transcription of parts of the lecture that were not relevant or necessary, so it became a time consuming process. So, I relied heavily on memory, other students’ notes and textbooks.
In law school I was still writing full, three hour exams with a pen. They’d give me double time. That still… just didn’t quite work, I mean you can imagine writing with a pen in my mouth for six hours. It’s just not the same as having the dexterity to be able to write with your hand. And although it was double time and I greatly appreciated it, I still wasn’t able to articulate on paper as well as I hoped.
Now however, I use voice activation technology on my smartphone. Just before you called, I was writing a lengthy court document actually, just dictating into my telephone. And so voice activation has been a huge boon… a total, not just game changer, but life changer for me. As I became more adept at dictating, being able to dictate my letters and essays became easier.
6. In your interview with Alison Kirk of the Law Society of Upper Canada, you shared that at the time, when you were exploring jobs with various law firms, many weren’t open to hiring the disabled because they were profit driven and didn’t really know how to accommodate, partially leading to your decision to open your own practice. In another panel you mentioned an employer might not have encountered someone with a disability, and that instead of demanding accommodation, we ought to look for collaborative creative solutions — like what you just discussed with your experience at school.
This is a two part question. You spoke a bit about this already, but we were wondering if one, you could speak a bit about your experiences throughout your legal and policy career in terms of the barriers and accommodations, and how they evolved. And secondly, if you subscribe to the belief that efficiency (in terms of maximising profit) and inclusion (in terms of accommodating the disabled) are mutually exclusive or if you believe they can be reconciled?
Okay, so beginning with the end of you question, I don’t even know if you need to worry about reconciling it or, squaring, or trying to complete the circle or, you know, put the “round peg in the square hole”, because, it is so, so straightforward. I know so many people living with a disability who are successes, by every definition of the word. They’re successes in their personal lives, they’re successes in their family lives, and they’re successes in their work life. I certainly believe that I have a career I am happy with, and proud of. I have colleagues who like me and respect me. I like and respect them back. All the criteria for a good and fulfilling career — I know I have, I know several other people have. Several of them have much more… much better than me; for example, Franklin Roosevelt or Beethoven had significant disabilities. I’d say by every stretch of imagination, they were successful.
We don’t even have to debate the question of reconciliation, it is a given. It’s utterly conclusive and obvious. However, to backtrack, it is easy to fall into little traps, for example because of certain barriers at school for example, or the early stages of my career. It may become more difficult to develop contacts that will help you with the initial networks that get you hired for that first job. I’ll give an example. So often, as an intern, or a university student, the way to start beginning those initial professional networks are to going to golf tournaments, or going to events with your colleagues who may be prospective employers. As a quadriplegic, I don’t golf anymore. I used to before my accident. There might be office parties, but the party is in a place that is up small steps. These little things that often are overlooked start to add up, one by one. They add to very significant barriers when going for their first job interview. It’s a job interview, and if the competition is between the individual that the employer knows well through golf tournaments and other social events, or has been running around bringing coffee and doing office or clerical work, versus the individual who has quadriplegia or a disability that the employer does not understand. [For the latter,] they really have not had the opportunity to engage and connect, and have not been able to also see them utilise their skills. There will be a natural propensity to hire the individual that the employers are comfortable with. And from there, it’s, new barriers… that’s just at the start, and then if you go down the road of a 30 year career, little additions to each one of that… each one of those very subtle barriers create a much more systemic problem. Although I’ve been very, very, very pleased to hear some of the really innovative approaches that are now being utilised. For example, mentorship programmes — both real connected mentorship programmes or online mentorship programmes, I think are a fantastic way to facilitate communications between students, young employees and prospective employers.
Alternately, you’re asking about me and early on, I think there were a few law firms that would have, or could have been interested but…I think much of it was related to the question of whether there was a pre-existing relationship. And also as my career goals, in the sense of purpose, was evolving, I was starting to find that it did not fit exactly within a traditional law practice. And what I mean by ‘traditional’, being family, criminal, corporate, real estate laws — I was not necessarily interested. My passions lay more in the area of disability advocacy, disability rights advocacy and also public advocacy.
It was literally a combination of factors. So I have to take responsibility too… I’m not going to just blame the environment I was in. I take more responsibility for my life choices.
7. That’s actually an excellent segway to our next question. We read about your book “The Six Degrees of Dignity”, and it seems to premise on the idea that in addition to changing our existing laws we also need to change the social structure within which laws operate in order to enable the disabled to lead a life of dignity. In an interview with IDIA, one of your fellow Canadian disability activists, David Lepofsky, said that sans strict legal penalties, it’s unlikely that people will make their infrastructure and services accessible. Do you think that social change and legal change can take place simultaneously or does the latter have to precede the former?
Oh I truly believe it can work coincidentally, symbiotically, and sometimes the moral and social change can be market driven, and then the law catches up after the fact. It doesn’t always take the law to change. Although I am a great believer in the potential of law, all too often, the law will create, unfortunately, a fallacy. I think it is very important to a critic of the law, both with respect to the Supreme Court Canada decisions; and constitutional decisions and/ or legislation. They create a framework with respect to legal theory from which we must ascribe, or they create a structure to follow, but they may lack in enforcement, or enforcement may only be marginally effective. Indeed, we have a very sizable Criminal Code, but there are still criminals, so the law has not erased crime nor can we expect the law to be a panacea to erasing discrimination.
The law is very important, and does do some social change, but it has to be driven by market forces. For example, just think of how many buildings, grocery stores, airports, etc. have power doors really meant for the general public. That’s a very market driven decision, to have those power doors, to have that easy access. Yet at the same time, people with a disability benefit tremendously. So we have law that pushed it, and that was very helpful. But at the same time, we also had market forces that drove it, and we didn’t need a law because there were market forces to drive it.
Also, we may have moral intelligence that may drive it, and there might be a cultural change. We’re seeing that in the context of the United States, in the context of sexual harassment right now. So I believe there’s a complexity, and a dynamic to making that social change that will create an inclusive society. At the same time if you ask me, law has a critical role to play in that change.
8. That was very insightful. Speaking of social change, in the same interview with the Law Society, you stated that a lot of disabled people seem to internalise the lowered expectations that society has from them, a phenomenon you termed ‘learned subordination’. Social psychologists have characterised this as ‘stereotype threat’ — the idea that people belonging to a negatively stereotyped group are unable to perform to the best of their ability because they fear conforming to the negative stereotype. What steps in your view can the disabled take to break this cycle?
Well, I’m not a psychologist of course, and that conundrum… the dilemma of self- esteem and self-confidence, when so frequently you encounter barriers either environmentally or attitudinally that strips you of your dignity; it becomes a very difficult daily battle. However, largely from my own success but also personal observations, within those broader external factors, is to accept that that’s all that they are. I’m never going to erase my disability, I’m aware of that. I’m going to gain confidence through achieving my own sense of goal, goals I’ve established for myself, and continue to redefine my sense of purpose and gain elation from the aspirations. It’s almost impossible to forget the context, or ignore the context in which we live, but we can certainly focus on trying to negate the irrelevant external factors and concentrate more on our own sense of success, our own happiness within the relationships that we create with others and internalise our own sense of happiness.
We get caught in the vortex of objective criteria – false – arbitrary ‘objective’ criteria. And from there, then, with a disability — once that’s internalised, then it can become almost a self-defeating prophecy, and that one must truly struggle to defeat.
9. From your personal experience, do you think attitudinal barriers are far greater to overcome than physical barriers? And second, in India, far too often, people have such low expectations from persons with disabilities that any mainstream achievement such as passing a school exam, or securing admission into college, are celebrated as heroic achievements. Whereas their able bodied counterparts are not celebrated for such an achievement because that’s considered something that they would be doing in the course of their life. So do you think this is a form of discrimination wherein we internalise the fact that persons with disabilities cannot achieve as much their able bodied counterparts?
Yes, I do believe that attitudinal barriers are the greatest challenge to defeat because they are laden with ambiguity, secrecy, subtlety — whether it’s about ablest ethos, or racism, or any other form of discrimination. Indeed the offender can quite easily have a bigoted attitude but externally be a very good actor and convey themselves as being inclusive. That is, I think, the most insidious form of barriers that persons with a disability have to face on a daily basis. The conundrum of having a person with a disability truly appreciate what you’re saying, whether it is getting admitted to college because they have such low expectations, or going to the North Pole — It’s something that I certainly, politically and personally, thought about a lot and battled with. Because if that is singled out and celebrated– if a person with a disability simply achieves that normative, and that is celebrated, then a false impression is created on several fronts — a false impression that the person with disability is achieving great things when they’re really just achieving the normative.
Secondly, it portrays a very false public impression that everyone with a disability is now doing it, or everyone with a disability is going to university or college. When in fact, there is the exceptional one to get to undergraduate, whereas there’s several thousands behind that individual who are still constricted to a life of poverty and isolation.
So its a real dilemma, the over celebrating of disability. Now the other side of it though, if you don’t capture the public’s attention (and I do believe capturing their attention to the positive rather than the negative can often be the best step towards future social change); but ff we don’t have some way to capture the attention of the public, then the barriers and discrimination are never going to end. So it’s truly a conundrum. And it’s sad to over celebrate or celebretize disabled persons, who are just getting on with their life.
10. That’s quite interesting, it reminds me of the report you chaired, on legislation recommendations for Persons with Disabilities, and I recall that there was a recommendation of “mandatory disability awareness education” under the ‘citizenship and justice’ section. I was wondering if you could elaborate on what exactly that would look like?
As you may know right now, Canada is currently receiving community consultation, and the Federal Government has committed to writing federal legislation that will set new standards for inclusions for persons with a disability in Canada. And it’s hoping to develop an over sighted enforcement component to that legislation. As one part of that oversight and enforcement, we see as critical (both from a common sense point of view and a new methodology for adjudication and enforcement of legislation) that in order for Canada to meet its obligations under the UN Convention for Rights of Persons with Disabilities, there should be mandated portion to create awareness, promotion and data retrieval with respect to creating a more inclusive environment — or in our case a more inclusive Canada. But I believe it’s important that it would apply to all countries to create a more inclusive world.
If a government can see its policies through not just a disability lens, but become a government of individuals living with a disability, of the organisations that represent them, in partnership with the private sector — we can embrace what is essentially the positive potential of people with disabilities. I think we’ll go from just, little steps forward, or just a little trickle towards change, that would suddenly have a tipping point and make great leaps toward that change. If disability and disablement is seen through the potential of individuals living with a disability, then we’ll see momentous change.
And while legislation, policy, and funded programs are all critically important, what’s most important are changes in awareness and communication. The former are vehicles by which to drive the change; the awareness to create love. It creates a sense of common human bonding, a sense of community connectedness between a person living with a disability — their role within the community, as well as the community’s role in that individual’s life. There’s a bonding and connectedness that now makes the disability community inexplicably linked with the broader community, and that’s why I do think awareness is so important. That’s a core, spiritual piece in the human condition.
11. As you said, disability awareness education can really change the outlook of persons towards persons with disabilities. Do you believe that in today’s day and age we should still have separate schools for the disabled? I’ve mostly noticed this for blind students in India.
No. I believe very strongly in integrated and inclusive schools because socialising — peer interaction and peer socialisation are critical to a child’s development and there will never be equality as long as there are segregated schools. Now a corollary to that is the public school system does need to have expertise, maybe even special education programmes within a school — maybe even experts that address issues with respect to any disability. But it’s critical to develop the peer to peer connection so that an individual with a disability develops the necessary socialisation. The child with a disability that has socialisation could become a connected citizen as an adult. You don’t have segregated children, and then expect them to be integrated, inclusive, empowered adults. It happens when they’re children. So I do feel very strongly that inclusive education is very important, but it must be accommodating, inclusive education.
12. I wanted to ask about another recommendation in the report which struck me as interesting. The report recommended having ‘standardised definitions and terminology’ and it reminded me of a lot of debates around the ‘appropriateness’ of certain terms in regards to how to refer to people with disabilities. Some argue they would rather be referred to as ‘disabled’ to highlight the environmental limitations that construct disability as a socially conceptualised concept. Others say they prefer ‘persons with disabilities’ to emphasize that they are persons first and the disabilities doesn’t define them. And we’ve even come across people who say “Oh, we’re all disabled, because there’s an intersectionality of one’s identity and various aspects of this can lead to challenges and drawbacks depending on the social context.” So I wanted to ask if you could elaborate on exactly what was meant by ‘standardised definitions and terminology’ in this report and your thoughts on the various linguistic debates. And furthermore, I was hoping you could speak more to the reference of the bio-psycho-social model of disability in the Bar interview that you had and how this plays into terminology standardisation.
Hmm. Yeah. That is the real dilemma- the definition of disability. We can simply say “Oh you can call me what you want but just don’t call me late for dinner!” But, you know, language is powerful and how it’s used is a very powerful tool, so I use respectful language. And everyone makes mistakes, but trying to use respectful language is, I think, a critical fact. However, I know your questioning goes to a much deeper point, and I do ascribe to the work that the World Health Organisation and scholars such as Tom Shakespeare ascribe to – seeing disability as an intersectionality or a continuum of both internal and external factors. I believe that therefore, finding and making an attempt to use the right language is more important than just the language itself. And so speaking from a personal perspective, I do think that the person is first and the disability is second, and also, the tools used in a world of disability are third. The focus has to be on the person. For example, referring to a person living with a disability as a wheelchair user puts it in the right perspective, because the wheelchair is a tool; the wheelchair is not an identity.
I think it’s critical to just work around that principle and that core element, and then after that, the language falls into place. So I guess if you’re asking…I would ascribe to the matter of intersectionality — we all are born with different physical and emotional, spiritual make-ups. At some point, every human must admit that they’re part of the temple, and so disability is part of the temple. And that is critical to the larger definition of what disability is. If you ask me who’s gotten it the best so far, I think the WorldHealth Organisation has.
The biopsychosocial model is simply a derivative of that first question you have about our place in the world. And the fact that we are all connected biopsychosocially — that for too long and until recently, individuals with a disability were defined by their biological self, and that’s been equivocal; and critically damaging at a cultural and historical level. Fortunately it’s at least been identified, but the residue of centuries of institutionalisation of persons living with a disability, of euthanizing persons living with a disability, the eugenics movement historically, the “ugly laws” in the United States that found persons with a disability either could not immigrate to their country or go out on the streets because they look ugly…. All of that feeds into a much larger historical and cultural embeddedness, it is endemic to who we are as a society. And I appreciate it will take generations. We’ve identified that that’s wrong, but it will take generational, generational change.
13. In the report that we discussed earlier, there was also a reference to the human rights approach which was defined as taking a proactive approach rather than a corrective approach, and affecting systemic change rather than individual redress. We were wondering if you could elaborate a bit little more about this approach and your experience on the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. Did your views on disability change as a result of that role?
When I say proactive approach, that’s critical. There is a role for a complaints-based mechanism also. So the other side, such as the Human Rights Tribunal, they do have an important role to play. But the real change I do think will happen at the propensive level, or the awareness level. Has my view changed though? I like to think it’s refined somewhat, after being what I hope is a part of the Human Rights community for a long time. In that committee report, it was more to the point that a human right perspective, a human rights lens, is going to be critical to creating an inclusive and respectful community. So my involvement in human rights, whether it’s the Human Rights Commission, human rights tribunal or the non- governmental sector has really largely been finding that, with respect to the biological labelling, the medical model has subordinated persons living with a disability. The individuation that Foucault would talk about in his literature about people with a disability, and how one is individuated — the next step would be to isolate, and then to subordinate. That linkage has to continue to be reversed. Whether one would argue it is still here or not, they can’t argue that we still don’t have the residual impact of historical wrongs. And so the principle is to go forward — with disability, disabled-ness, and all individuals; all humans from a human rights perspective of diversity and inclusion. And that is the critical principle, so that’s where that report was pointing to. To see individuals, to see humans in a categorised stratified fashion is only going to perpetuate discrimination at best and negation at worst, so that’s where that report was pointing to. And if anything’s changed by experience over the last few decades of being in this work is that it’s just a firmer, deeper commitment to that principle and belief.
14. Similarly, there was another report you had contributed to via the Human Rights Commission, a 2011 shadow report meant to comply with the UNCRPD. One key principle underlying the intervention was ensuring adequate participation of persons with disabilities in the formulation of laws and policies impacting them. We were wondering what role you feel the principle “nothing about us without us” should play in the formulation of laws and policies impacting the disabled?
I think it’s absolutely critical… whether it’s from a legal perspective (and in that case, absolutely necessary) but also from a moral perspective. As in Canada, when the Federal or any Government wish to create development projects that may impact aboriginal rights or aboriginal titles, they must consult with the First Nations. It is as critical for the Federal Government, or any government, should it be creating legislation that will impact the disability community, they should be consulting that very community. Recently, we had the current evolution of the federal disability legislation in Canada, which we expect to be ready in Parliament early this summer, 2018. To its credit, the federal government, has been exceptional in its inclusion of consultations with the disability community. So far, it’s been very very effective in its consultation. Also to its credit, the United Nations in the creation of the Convention of Rights of Persons with Disabilities did the same thing; they engaged wholeheartedly with civil society and made them partners in the creation of the UN Convention. Therefore the Convention took about 8 years to create and to co-sign, and ultimately ratify several member states, largely because, I believe, of that partnership with civil society which created broad, public consensus, and also, I believe, better legislation. It involved, as you said, “nothing about us without us”, which meant that ultimately the product created, the legislation created, was much much better because it did have a disability lens. So, yes I believe that legally it’s necessary, morally it’s necessary, and if you wanted to say “It makes darn good sense” because it’s ultimately better for all parties involved, not just the disability community but the entire public.
15. In India, although we’ve ratified the CRPD as well, we still somewhat follow the medical model of disabilities in the sense that our primary law states out 21 disabilities. A medical certificate certifying the same will entitle you to reasonable accommodation. Do you believe that we should continue following the medical model from a practical perspective, or do you think we should be following more of a social model of disability?
Well, the American Disability Act and in Canada too, in order to get disability benefits, it still remains necessary to get a medical report and have a doctor sign off writing that you’re disabled. The side I fall on that is, while it does have some practical utility and only as a tool, what cannot be allowed is the identity. First the personal and social identity — the person is critical. If there needs to be identifying markers so that the individual can be accommodated or their disability can be understood, it is helpful, but only as a tool. The critical first question is “What is that person’s place of citizenship and what is a fair potential?” not “Oh that person has this disability or that disability and therefore they should get this kind of compensation.” That is not their identity. I guess if you’re asking, the medical model may have a role but it needs to be subordinated.
16. Kind of turning a bit away from the policy and legal aspects, and I’m wary that, I don’t want to sensationalise normative expectations, but some of the athletic feats that you’ve accomplished, I guess maybe to me who is not athletic in the slightest, seems quite extraordinary. You went to the North Pole and you even skydived! I was just really curious about the motivation behind these… most people generally don’t engage in these kinds of activities. Would you be just willing to share little bit about what compelled you to pursue them? Are you just an adrenaline junkie? Why did you want to accomplish these feats?
Yeah, the hardest one for me was when I wheeled across Canada. That was probably the toughest one. We talked about awareness… it was largely to build awareness around the simplicity of inclusion, if we focus on an individual’s potential. You did ask me, am I an adrenaline junkie. Yeah, well, I am an adventure junkie, adventure was definitely part of it. I love adventure, but I was driven by a hope that it would create a broader awareness of just how simple the answers are. Did it achieve that? I hope it contributed to that discussion or that discourse, but it’s pretty easy to focus on just on that, and sensationalise it. “If David can go to the North Pole, everyone can.” I really wanted to just say “I’ve arrived at the North Pole, I’m a quadriplegic. It’s exactly one hundred years to the day since the first European had a successful expedition to the North Pole. And I know indigenous people have been there before, but it was the first time that there was a successful European one so in that sense, the North Pole has been in literature, and has historically been such a significant symbol of what is truly a barrier, certainly on Earth, other than the moon. I believe that this will be a great way to almost say, “Ha ha in your face, there’s no barriers!” And that’s why when I arrived there, I planted an accessible parking sign just to say, “You know what, we have arrived. We’ve arrived at a new dawn of accessibility and people with a disability can also get to the North Pole, surely as dog sleds could do it a hundred years ago.”
So I hoped it would add to the larger discourse in awareness but yeah, the adrenaline too and adventure was part of that ongoing interest.
17. What you would say to someone who experiences a similar accident, and found themselves with a permanent disability?
Well, you know the first thought that crossed through my mind was “Talk to me!” But really what I meant by that was, “Feel free to open up and connect with others who have been through it or have knowledge of it. And also, rely on the ones you love” And I think that that’s most important.
Then after that the healing begins. After that, part of reconnecting with your world after the acute phase of the accident and resetting your goals. Find role models you wish to aspire to. You know early on, when I was in law school or earlier, I had maybe one or two role models who had disabilities. But very few people at the republic, had disabilities. I found role models in professors, judges, people doing the kind of work that I was very interested in. Try to identify those role models, and let them help you set your course.
But if you said to someone who’s just had it? Um, maybe ‘learn to love the ones you love’. They’re the ones who are going to help you regain your spiritual health. If it’s even lost, I don’t know. But to help you with your spiritual health.
18. And I’m just curious if we could circle back to your earlier anxieties around, those questions – will someone love me, etc.? Have you come to a conclusion about those? Have you resolved some of those earlier reservations?
Yeah that’s the most important part of my life. It’s not career. It’s about my, family relationships, my life with my wife, step daughter, dear friends in my life. Colleagues absolutely. I have a lot of fun with my colleagues. But in terms of looping full circle, yeah, I think I feel pretty comfortable saying that, I’m living it. And that’s truly what matters.
19. So to close this interview, any topics or questions that we didn’t ask that you maybe want to share with our readers?
I say, good change. Change is coming.
The IDAP interview series aims to solicit actionable insights from lawyers with disabilities on the strategies adopted by them to excel in their field. The series also seeks to educate and increase awareness within the legal fraternity, with the ultimate aim of fostering meaningful dialogue on reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities. If you have any comments/feedback on our series or if you would like us to interview a lawyer, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can read our other interviews here.