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Beyond White Canes and Wheelchairs in the Workplace

The Honourable David Onley (1950-2023) Talked About Attitudes
By Jeff Tiessen
An inductee in the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame, David Onley was one of Canada’s first newscasters with a visible disability and a prominent figure on television. As the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, His Honour championed accessibility issues.
When David Onley was hired as Citytv’s weatherman and science reporter in 1984, it marked a turning point for Toronto’s broadcasting industry. With his cane and leg braces, Onley was the first reporter with a visible disability to work on camera in Toronto, the nation’s media capital.

The significance was not lost on the new weatherman. Citytv was one of North America’s most innovative television stations. He knew thousands of others in his situation would be watching. If he did his job, doors would open for them as well.

Onley remembered calling his mother with news of his new job. Perhaps looking for affirmation, he expressed some trepidation. “I wasn’t sure whether or not my boss was hiring me for my ability or if he wanted more minority representation,” Onley admitted. “My mother, in a very un-characteristic fashion, said, ‘for heaven’s sake David, you’ve been turned down for so many jobs because of that, just take it’.”

“... a successful community is one in which people are accepted. Inclusion is forced or mandated. Membership is an invitation. It is a fundamental difference.”

Citytv boss Moses Znaimer later shared with Onley that he had indeed scouted and pursued him for his abilities, particularly in his science reporting. “It was very liberating to be hired on my merits alone,” Onley offered. “Moses seemed oblivious to my disability, but I did accept the job quickly before he could change his mind,” he added with a smile.

Onley did his job as weatherman on Citytv and later served as morning news anchor on Breakfast Television, space and technology specialist, and education specialist. In 22 years with Citytv and its partner all-news station CP24, no attempt was made to hide Onley’s disability on camera.

At the same time, despite suffering recurring bouts of post-polio fatigue, Onley devoted a tremendous amount of his time as an active volunteer to organizations like Variety Village and the Toronto SkyDome Accessibility Committee, and became a forceful advocate for disability issues.

Born in Midland, Ontario, Onley contracted polio at the age of three but didn’t allow his disability to stand in the way of his plans. Although equipped with a Bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Toronto, it was his lifelong fascination with space exploration that led him to broadcasting.

He spent a number of weeks at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration headquarters in Florida doing research on the space shuttle before spending two years holed up in his parents’ basement writing his best-selling novel, Shuttle: A Shattering Novel of Disaster. The book opened up opportunities for him as a radio commentator on general science topics which in turn led him to Citytv.

In 2007, to the delight of Ontario’s disability community, it was announced that David C. Onley would become The Queen’s representative in the province, the 28th Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. During his installation at Queen’s Park, the Honourable David Onley declared that he was adopting accessibility as the overarching theme for his term in office. “And by accessibility, I mean that which enables people to achieve their full potential,” he clarified.

“I want people to understand that the greatest barrier to accessibility is not curbs or manual entrances. It is attitude – the kind that cannot see beyond a person’s disability to the unique individual within, with all of his or her talents and abilities.”

While Onley respected that the disability community is very conscious of terminology, he admitted that he didn’t get hung up on terms. He did however cite an essay from the Russian Orthodox Church of the United States of America that addresses definitional differences that we toss around far too easily. “The report talks about the words handicap and disability,” he explained. “The authors define ‘handicap’ as something that is imposed on someone by the action of others. A ‘disability’ is something you are born with or acquire in life.

“The report also addresses inclusion versus membership, whereby a successful community is one in which people are accepted. Inclusion is forced or mandated. Membership is an invitation. It is a fundamental difference. I’ve always tried to get people to think in terms of membership.”

While he championed accessibility and all of its forms, the Lieutenant Governor was particularly concerned with attitudes, largely based on misinformation about the difficulties of accommodation, which keep people with disabilities out of the labour force.

He traveled all over Ontario speaking to employers and service groups, making a business case for hiring workers who also happen to have disabilities. “I want people to think beyond physical accessibility, characterized by the ubiquitous white wheelchair on a blue sign,” he emphasized. “I want people to understand that the greatest barrier to accessibility is not curbs or manual entrances. It is attitude – the kind of attitude that cannot see beyond a person’s disability to the unique individual within, with all of his or her talents and abilities,” he said.

Onley shared that his inability to find employment after graduation, which forced him to live at home with his parents, was an experience he had never forgotten and part of what pushed him as Lieutenant Governor to focus on greater employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

For Onley, it was notable how far things had come in that respect, but how far is left to go. “You just can’t have hundreds of thousands of people who are able to work and who want to work, sitting at home on government assistance when at the same time companies are saying we have a labour shortage and can’t find qualified workers,” Onley maintained.

“The connection between business and the disability community, for the purposes of hiring, needs to be made. It’s just good business to hire people with disabilities. We have an awareness shortage, not a labour shortage. And if we don’t have an awareness problem, then we have a bias problem against hiring people with disabilities.”

To that aim, Onley pointed to the efforts of Randy Lewis who has led Walgreens to the forefront of employers in the United States for people with disabilities and has done so for calculated business reasons: to increase productivity and increase profits. As Onley detailed, with almost 40 percent of the company’s distribution centre workforce comprised of people with disabilities, Lewis maintains that productivity and job retention are higher, and absenteeism and workplace injuries are lower. “And Lewis isn’t just talking about people with artificial limbs, or who use wheelchairs,” Onley said, “but those using walkers or living with depression or autism or Asperger’s as well. The percentage of people in our population who are ‘normal’ says Lewis is not very big.”

Onley credited his upbringing for teaching him to always respect other people and for his ability to identify with other minorities. “Yes, I’m a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, with British background,” he acknowledged, “but I’ve always seen myself as a minority.” He advocated that “there really is no such thing as ‘the disabled’. There are aboriginal peoples who have disabilities, members of the gay and lesbian community who have a disability, and so on. We are such a rich and diverse community that transcends all of society.”

Jeff Tiessen

An excerpt from Glowing Hearts V published by Disability Today Publishing Group, Inc. Read about all of the inductees in the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame.

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