Forum highlights need to look beyond wheelchair access

“Imagine if you were unable to hear auditory language completely — how that would impact your daily life,” said Susan Masters, executive director of the Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, at the Law Society’s April 26 public forum, Equal Access for People with Disabilities. “The telephone would not be a tool; it would become a barrier to effective communication. Think about the educational system — how would you learn the language of the culture without having heard it? How would you receive instruction on the job site?”

Speaking to about 150 people at the forum, Masters called for a broader perspective in looking at accessibility for people with disabilities.

“Considerable information is available on barrier-free design, but there is very little material that deals specifically with the design needs of people who are deaf and hard of hearing,” she noted. “For example, an intercom entry system is frequently mentioned as a useful and necessary accommodation for people with mobility disabilities without any acknowledgment that such systems pose a barrier to people who are deaf and hard of hearing.”

Moderated by Vancouver Sun columnist Peter McKnight, the forum brought together a panel of legal and other experts to look at opening doors for people with disabilities — in the courtroom, in the workplace and in the legal profession.

Lila Quastel, an occupational therapist and chair of the Law Society’s Disability Research Working Group, called for a cross-disability perspective in looking at courthouse accessibility. She said that while Court Services has done a good job of addressing the big picture, she found many “glitches” in her analysis of courthouse accessibility across BC. For example, a new courthouse in Prince George got high marks for barrier-free design, but lost marks for having a double-door system that presents challenges for people in wheelchairs.

Audience members also pointed out that attending and participating in court proceedings presents a major challenge for the deaf and hard of hearing. They called for sign language interpretation and on-screen captioning — a real-time transcript of the discussion — to be made available during court proceedings. In hosting the forum, the Law Society provided these services to assist the deaf and hard of hearing.

Paul Gauthier, a community capacity coordinator with the BC Paraplegic Association who lives with cerebral palsy, said that looking at accessibility is pointless if people with disabilities don’t have the support they need to even “make it out of bed.” Gauthier, who grew up in a group home, noted that when he moved out on his own it was a struggle to get the support he needed. After identifying this need in his own life, Gauthier helped to create the Choices in Support for Independent Living Program (CSIL) to assist others looking for similar support. The three-time Paralympian and gold medal winner in boccia ball noted that the personal attendant he was able to hire through the program not only helped him to achieve a successful career, but also allowed him to take on competitive boccia. Gauthier underscored how the program is designed around helping people with disabilities to achieve their goals, rather than focusing on the disability.

As the final panellist of the evening, Bill Morley shared his personal journey towards a successful career in law. Today a lawyer and partner at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP, Morley recalled the choice he made 33 years ago after a car accident changed his life. While recovering at the hospital, Morley decided to reach out for support so that he could write his high school exams and graduate. That choice was just the beginning of his path to leading a full and active life with a disability. Today, he helps other accident victims regain their independence.

The Law Society began working with an advisory group of lawyers with disabilities in 1996 to identify and find ways of helping people with disabilities to become lawyers. “We realized that reaching out to people with disabilities on a broad scale was absolutely essential,” said Art Vertlieb, QC, chair of the Equity and Diversity Committee in his closing remarks. “And that means promoting full participation for people with disabilities in all aspects of the community — at home, in the workplace and in the legal system.”

Equal Access for People with Disabilities was presented by the Law Society in partnership with the BC Coalition of People with Disabilities and in association with the Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, the BC Paraplegic Association, CBC and The Vancouver Sun.