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On the last frontier

by David Scott

Lorin MacDonald, JD’09, faces our last frontier every day. The Toronto human rights lawyer, who lives with a hearing loss, has dedicated her life, education and career to advocating for the disabled. To date, her victories have led – and continue to lead – to concrete gains for accessibility for all Ontarians. But the fight is far from over, she stresses.

“Disability rights are the last frontier when it comes to civil rights,” she said.

MacDonald’s advocacy started in high school in Port Dover, Ont., where she sat in the front row of most classrooms to read lips. There were no accommodations for students like her. And so she adapted, often befriending the smartest students in each class so she wouldn’t fall behind. She excelled and that path led to Western – after attending Humber and Ryerson – where she started at King’s University College in 2001 and ended in Western Law in 2009.

During the summer of 2004, MacDonald organized Still Waiting: A Forum for Moving Ahead, a conference held at King’s that looked at how to strengthen the existing Ontarians with Disabilities Act, held at King's in 2004 at the end of her first week at Western Law. That conference was the birth of the Accessibilities for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), introduced just six weeks later at Queen’s Park.

At the height of the bill’s momentum, however, MacDonald was forced to pause. In May 2005, she was diagnosed with cancer.

“The doctor said I needed to see the specialist at St. Joseph’s Hospital. A few days later, I said to him ‘I’m sorry I can’t go because the final reading for the AODA is happening at Queen’s Park and I need to be there. Can it wait a few days?’ And he looked at me so stunned. Then he said, ‘I guess a few days won’t hurt.’

MacDonald made it to Queen’s Park when the historic legislation was passed unanimously. In attendance at both the Forum and in the House was London West MPP Chris Bentley, former Western Law instructor, and Minister of Labour at the time. He was about to be named Attorney General for Ontario. Bentley became Lorin's trusted advisor from law school onward.

“There was no way I was missing that final reading. It was – and still is – one of the most moving days of my life. It was extremely, extremely moving,” said MacDonald.

She recently received the inaugural AODA 10th Anniversary Champion Award. The award recognizes individuals who demonstrate leadership in accessibility and disability issues, and a commitment to accessibility and inclusiveness in their community.

Coming down from that historic high, MacDonald now faced her own personal reality. In her typical savvy style, she met it head on. She had three surgeries throughout law school.

“There are really no bad experiences in life – everything just prepares you for what’s next to come,” she said. “Even my cancer wasn’t really a bad experience. I see it as a blessing in many ways because it’s given me tremendous empathy I never would have had otherwise.

“I don’t think I could have (dealt with other struggles in life) had I not been through the cancer and learned with a few little words – ‘This too shall pass.’ No matter how bad it is, the biggest thing is that your fears are always worse than the reality. ‘This too shall pass’ is always true. You are stronger than you ever know. As pithy as it all sounds, I’ve found those things to be true.”

During her time in London, she helped make the Western campus and the Grand Theatre more inclusive to people living with hearing loss. In 2006, she was named to the Mayor’s New Year’s Honours List and recognized the same year by the University Student Council (USC) with the Disability Advancement Award. Likewise, she received the Alumni Award of Merit for Community Service in 2014 from Western.

Her work has not passed unnoticed by those who knew her that first week at Western. “Lorin’s advocacy is born of personal challenges, but pursued with a determination to bring about change. She refuses to leave others to endure what she has overcome. Lorin is a leader in an area where many would be happy simply not to be left behind. Leadership is never easy, and not always popular, but absolutely necessary,” said Bentley, now the executive director of the Law Practice Program at Ryerson University.

MacDonald articled and worked as a lawyer in a few traditional law firms, but found she needed to create an environment where she could be most effective. In a profession where time is money, those with sight or hearing difficulties need to approach things differently to achieve the same results as their peers. As she has done in many situations, MacDonald adapted.

Realizing she had been an effective advocate for accessibility and the disabled for decades, MacDonald opened her own private practice in Toronto in June 2015 focused on human rights and representing children with disabilities who have faced discrimination.

“Initially, I was concerned that this focus was too narrow,” she said. “Sadly, it is not.”

MacDonald is still amazed by the lack of common sense when it comes to some organizations’ perceptions of accommodating the disabled.

“For some reason, it’s still okay to say to a wheelchair user, ‘Oh, you want to come into this restaurant? Then you have to go in the back, through the kitchen and past all the garbage or you can’t come in at all because you have to go over three steps.’

“A lot of the time, it’s just out of ignorance. Just not knowing what to say or do. All you need to do is say, ‘How can I help you?’ That’s all that needs to be done. Or just being willing to do something a little differently like coming around the front of a counter if the wheelchair user is not able to see above the counter. That costs nothing.”

MacDonald stressed that one change could alleviate most barriers faced by disabled in Ontario and across Canada every day. “Attitudes are always the biggest barriers of all.”

“Lorin is a tireless advocate for inclusivity. She is passionate about the work that she does to raise awareness of disability issues and to promote accessibility. In the face of multiple barriers and challenges, her persistent optimism is contagious,” said Cynthia Petersen, a discrimination and harassment counsel for Ontario’s law society since 2002, and partner with Ottawa firm Goldblatt Partners since 1995. Petersen first met MacDonald when she visited the campus as a guest lecturer for Western Law. The two have stayed in touch over the years and are often at the same conferences, committee meetings and gatherings within the legal profession.

A volunteer since her teens, MacDonald quotes Helen Keller, "Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it."

Today, she is on the Board of Music Without Barriers, founded by Western alumni Adam Haines and Adrian Moody, which enables aspiring artists with disabilities to make music through digital technology; The StopGap Foundation, a charitable organization that builds colourful ramps for single-step storefronts; and as an ambassador to the Rick Hansen School Program, speaking to schoolchildren about accessibility and inclusion. This is in addition to her long-standing work with the Law Society of Upper Canada and the Ontario Bar Association to make the legal profession more accessible to lawyers with disabilities.

MacDonald greatly respects Justice Rosalie Abella of the Supreme Court of Canada for her work in advancing equality rights in Canada. During a lecture at Western, this statement by Justice Abella resonated with her: "It's not just what you stand for, it's what you stand up for."

MacDonald has made it her life mission to do just that.

This article appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of Alumni Gazette
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