In acknowledgment of International Day of Persons with Disabilities, York University’s Office of Alumni Engagement have profiled five alumni who identify with a disability or have made contributions locally and nationally in the area of disability and also gathered their thoughts on what International Day of Persons with Disabilities means to them.
Read their profiles below to learn more about their work in disability advocacy and how York University played a role in where they are now.
To read profiles of current York University student leaders who identify with a disability and are making a difference at York University and beyond, visit the Centre for Human Rights, Equity and Inclusion website.
David Lepofsky, C.M., O.Ont (LL.B.’79)
Prior to retiring, David had an extensive legal career in the Ontario Public Service sector in the areas of civil, constitutional, and administrative law. An advocate for the disability rights movement, in 2005 David led a province-wide campaign to pass the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). Today, he continues his advocacy at a national level for the Accessible Canada Act also known as Bill C-81. He is a member of the Order of Canada (1995), the Order of Ontario (2007), The Terry Fox Hall of Fame (2003), and has honorary doctorates from Queen’s University and the University of Western Ontario.
In a recent interview with York University’s Office of Alumni Engagement, David spoke about the systemic barriers that he overcame as a student, the technologies that helped him through his time at York, and what led him to his advocacy work.
“A big breakthrough when I was in first year was the advent of the cassette tape,” he said. “I would listen to casebooks on reel-to-reel and dictate my case summaries on another cassette. If I wanted to take a complete quote, I would do that by plugging a patch cord, and literally “dub” a quotation,” he continued. “For blind people, the idea that you could carry a book in your pocket was revolutionary. Now we have an iPhone with that technology, but back then I would take a tape recorder into class and dictate notes into my microphone.”
But even while technology improved, there were still challenges. “I had to get my professors to give me my casebooks early so that I could get volunteers from the CNIB to start recording them. If a professor walked into a classroom and said, ‘here’s an added case to read,’ I was in deep trouble because I would have to get someone to record it quickly. My classmates often volunteered to help, which was great,” he said. “I would say with maybe one or two exceptions; my professors were overwhelmingly helpful.”
Today, in addition to his ongoing advocacy work, David is a visiting professor lecturing in various programs at York—including Osgoode Hall. He provides valuable guidance and advice to various members of York’s senior administration on ways that the University can enhance accessibility. “I offer guest lectures at as many as 20 courses per term—including family law, constitutional law, administrative law, human rights, etc. It gives me the chance to talk about disabilities issues in the context of the law,” he said.
David sees a positive trend among current students. Through his involvement with Osgoode’s Public Interest Requirement (OPIR), he’s mentored students who are looking to advance human rights as a career. “I’ve had a number of OPIR students that come to work with me who have said ‘I came to law school because I wanted to work in disabilities rights,’” he said.
In speaking about the importance of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, David offered the following advice to students facing systemic barriers due to disability. “Never give up. The barriers are beatable. Most people with disabilities will think at some time in their life that they’re isolated and don’t have the capacity to make a change, but that’s what holds them back. Be firm. Be polite. Be constructive. Be strong. You’ve got the best case. There’s no one who can plausibly say that these barriers are good for people. Individuals are the backbone of our disabilities rights movement.”
Joanne Smith (BA ’96)
Founder of Fruitful Elements, Nutritionist, Author
In 1988, while living away from home and studying at another school, Joanne was involved in a life-altering car accident. After completing several months in rehabilitation, she chose to transfer to York University both because of its proximity to her family and its reputation as an accessible school. Joanne graduated from the Faculty of Health at York in 1996 in a concurrent program with Seneca College, where she also received a Diploma in Radio and Television Broadcasting.
After graduation, Joanne landed a position at Global Television where she worked for a year as an Editorial Assistant before moving on to CBC. At CBC, Joanne became co-host of “Disability Network”, later re-named “Moving On,” where she brought awareness to disabilities issue by discussing a wide range of topics that included everything from transportation, employment, housing, sexuality and education. She remembers fondly the inspirational people she met from all disability backgrounds. “It was an eyeopener to me to see what you can make happen. There was a common theme of having a community and strong network of support.”
Today, Joanne runs Fruitful Elements – a nutrition company that specializes in providing services to individuals with disabilities, with specialization in neurological conditions such as spinal cord and brain injuries, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy. She also teaches nutrition classes to individuals who are deaf/blind at The Canadian Helen Keller Centre. Speaking about her work as a nutritionist she noted, “I found it was often the secondary health complications that prevented people with disabilities from living independently. It was a missing piece of long-term healthcare.”
Outside of her work in nutrition, Joanne is an active community volunteer. She is a past board member of the Canadian Paraplegic Association, has volunteered with the Federal Accessibility Legislation Alliance, and serves on the selection committee for the Canadian Foundation for Physically Disabled Persons. Her dedication to raising awareness and assisting Canadians with disabilities led to her receipt of the King Clancy Award in 2006, induction into the Terry Fox Hall of Fame in 2007, and being honored with the Gabriel Award in 2008.
Joanne shares the following message with students who may have the experience of acquiring a new disability. “You’ve got to come up with ways around it…advocate for yourself,” she continued. “I said to myself ‘I’m going to make this work.’ I had some great opportunities, but it was a bit nerve wracking. You’ve got to look at what’s the best way to deal with any challenge.”
About the International Day for Persons with Disabilities, Joanne said: “To me, this day is built on raising awareness of disabilities issues. I think that’s key for integration, inclusion, and equality in Canada.”
Meenu Sikand (MA ’10)
Policy Specialist, Disabilities Advocate, and Non-Profit leader
After a long-standing career in information technology and computer programming, Meenu channeled her passion for disabilities advocacy into a career in public policy. She is the founder of Accessibility for All, a non-profit organization that works to identify, address, and meet the needs of marginalized communities. Chief among her organization’s objectives are to provide accessibility consulting as well as to engage the government in disabilities programming.
In a recent interview with York University’s Alumni Engagement Office, Meenu recounted her experience dealing with a newly-diagnosed disability as a newcomer to Canada. “I completed a Bachelor of Science in India. When I came as a family-sponsored immigrant, my plan was to complete a Masters degree,” she recalled. “Soon after my arrival I had some back pain, went for surgery and became paralyzed. That was in June, and my Masters would have started in September.”
“After my spinal cord injury, I went for rehab and learned what it meant to have a disability. There were several barriers that were added because of my status in Canada. Typically, under family sponsorship, you complete a bond for 10 years to take care of the sponsored person. For most families, the cost of healthcare is expensive if you don’t have coverage. It’s very difficult to pay for rehab and wheelchair accommodations,” she went on. “I was so new. I had no social network. In 1986, you couldn’t just connect to your network back home and healthcare services were not very understanding of different cultural needs. It made for a difficult recovery. However, I enrolled myself into programs that were available and went into computer programming.”
Despite these challenges, she continued to invest in her career. She gradually moved from programming, to project management and business analysis, and eventually into policy. “When I look at my work, it’s a continuum of what I’ve done all along,” she expressed. “Those opportunities come your way when people don’t look at your title but look at your skills, knowledge and abilities.”
After many years of hard work, in 2010 Meenu eventually realized her dream to complete her Masters degree. “I wanted to study under Marcia Rioux, because her contribution to the social justice movement in Canada was tremendous. I really wanted to expand my skills in critical thinking,” she said. “I always recommend highly that people take a course at York U—regardless of disability or not—if they want to improve their critical thinking around social justice issues.”
Today, Meenu continues to engage communities across York and Peel region in advocacy for disabilities issues while ensuring that the voices of newcomers are heard. In speaking about the importance of International Day of Persons with Disabilities she said, “Accessibility is the right of all Canadians, not just a few. Unless we make sure that human rights of all people are realized, we cannot be an inclusive country.”
Michelle Amerie (BFA ’89)
Artist, Teacher and Disabilities Advocate
Michelle is an advocate for inclusion and active living for Canadians with disabilities. As a person living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), her experience requires her to use a wheelchair for mobility. MS, an unpredictable autoimmune disease of the central nervous system, can cause fatigue, lack of coordination, weakness, impaired senses, and vision changes. According to the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada, Canada has one of the highest rates of multiple sclerosis in the world, with an estimated 1 in every 385 Canadians living with the disease. Despite the challenges, Michelle is a community leader on many initiatives to advance equity and disability pride.
In a recent interview with York University’s Office of Alumni Engagement, Michelle recounted her formative years on Keele Campus. “My disability was not as prevalent at the time. I had my first symptom at 16 and was not diagnosed until 20. I was living my life normally which, to me, meant getting my degree and doing what I loved. I wanted to take sculpture and York had a great sculpture course.”
In her first year, Michelle’s educational path changed as the result of her MS. After beginning sculpture, she became unable to work with a three-dimensional medium. “Shortly after I started my first year I had a flare up,” she recalled. “It was uplifting to know that I could still stay at York and take my three-dimensional sculpture and turn it into a two-dimensional love of photography. It meant that that I could continue and still graduate with my creative voice being heard.”
She also described the immense support she received from both her classmates and the broader York community. “When I came back to school the class gave me a plant. To this day, that plant is still alive. It has been so important for me throughout my life. It represents resiliency,” she said.
Today, Michelle teaches silk painting and is the Vice Chair of the Tetra Society of North America, a not-for-profit organization that provides volunteer engineers across Canada and the US opportunities to design and construct custom assistive devices for people with disabilities. In speaking about Tetra, she spoke fondly about the shared goal of human connection. The retired engineers at Tetra have a need to connect and use their skills while people living with disabilities are benefitting from their services. This human connection, she feels, is at the core of what International Day of Persons with Disabilities means to her. “Universal access is our civil obligation. We are one, we are not just a group of individuals. Segregating us because of our abilities is a step backwards for our society,” she said.
A recipient of numerous accolades, Michelle has been dubbed Ontario’s Champion of Spirit by Berlex Canada, featured as a Soul Model in Chatelaine Magazine’s Women of Inspiration series, and has been chosen as a Volunteer of the Year by Flare Magazine. She has also received many awards including the Access Award for Disability Issues from the City of Toronto, was the 1st Inductee to the MS Society Volunteer Hall of Fame, and in 2012 was a recipient of the prestigious Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal.
As an artist and teacher, she has had exhibitions in Toronto, Ottawa, Chicago and Australia. She has been a long-time instructor at the Toronto Summer Institute facilitating workshops on inclusion, community and diversity with students from around the world.
Sara Chung (BES ’07, MES ’09)
It was a normal afternoon coffee and trip to the bookstore when Sara began experiencing severe pain in her right eye. “It felt like I was going blind or developing glaucoma. I went to the optometrist because I thought I needed new glasses,” she recounted in a recent interview with York University’s Office of Alumni Engagement.
During her appointment, she learned it was something else. “He said I had a swollen nerve, which is called optic neuritis. It’s one of the most common symptoms of multiple sclerosis, a disease most commonly diagnosed in women in their 20s. It was a scary time,” she recalled. “When you’re first diagnosed, you experience a lot of noise. My biggest fear was ending up in a wheelchair. I couldn’t think of anything other than, ‘I’m only 22 and I’m not going to be able to walk. I can’t go out to a club with my friends.’”
Having completed her Bachelor of Environmental Studies, at the time of her diagnosis Sara was in the first year of her Masters program. “I was lucky to be in one of the very best faculties at York,” she expressed. “I had a supportive supervisor in Ellie Perkins and a good support system around me because of what she was able to facilitate. The York drug plan was phenomenal.”
While her experience did not affect her much academically, she began experiencing other difficulties. “I had challenges during my commute to and from school. I don’t look like I have a disability, but it’s hard for me to stand on crowded busses and crowded subways and maintain my balance,” she noted. “If someone gets on the bus with a cane or crutches, people move. I didn’t know how to open the conversation and say, even though I don’t have a cane or crutches, I really need to sit. It puts me and everyone else around me in danger because it’s easy to fall over.”
Since then, Sara has learned how to advocate for herself and continues to do so – particularly in the workplace. “Some people find it difficult to talk about disabilities. I’m quite the opposite. Many people don’t know how it affects your life,” she said. “I’ve made it a practice to tell my managers ‘I want you to know that I have MS. It rarely impacts my ability to work. But it means I might have a few more doctors’ appointments.’” She’s noted that employers have generally been quite accommodating. “My employer gave me a desk that gives me the option of standing or sitting. They created openness to have general conversations with all employees—not just me,” she said.
Moving forward, she sees an opportunity to improve dialogue between employers and employees. “There was some legislation that was introduced to mandate salary disclosure. But perhaps too, along with that, there should be disclosure about drug coverage,” she said. “If there was more disclosure we could compare, apples-to-apples, whether or not candidates should apply. It’s also a way for employers to attract strong talent.”
In speaking about the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Sara hopes that this day will allow for more safe spaces to talk about disabilities that aren’t visible—especially in the workplace. “I hope that this day is a moment to shed light and create awareness of the whole breadth of disabilities that exist. Just because a person ‘looks normal’ doesn’t mean they’re not living with a disability,” she proclaimed. She left this message for students who may be going through similar circumstances; “Be empowered. Going through school and having a life-changing diagnosis can be scary and difficult. Harness the moment. Embrace the challenges and challenge yourself to overcome.”