Conversation with lawyer living with a disability

Voice Over: This is The Every Lawyer presented by the Canadian Bar Association.

Ray:  Hello. And welcome to conversations with the president, a podcast series about diversity in the legal profession. I’m Canadian Bar Association president Ray Adlington. I’m a cisgender white man who became a successful lawyer without having to face discrimination based upon my gender identity, sexual orientation, skin colour or physical abilities. This podcast is my way of learning about those who have had to face these kinds of obstacles and maybe figuring out ways the CBA can help the profession move toward a more inclusive future.

When we think about diversity, we tend to think about race, sexual orientation and gender identity, but there are other types of diversity to be aware of as well, religious differences for example or the differently abled. My guest this episode is Lorin McDonald, a lawyer from Toronto who was born with profound hearing loss in both ears. Lorin worked in advertising, public relations and event management throughout the 1980s. She’d been thinking about going to law school but only made up her mind to do it after a serious car accident in 1997. She entered law school at Western University in London, Ontario at age 41, called to the bar in 2010. In 2015, Lorin started her own firm with a very niche clientele. She only takes clients who have experienced discrimination because of their disabilities. Welcome to the podcast, Lorin.

Lorin: Thank you, Ray, for inviting me. Pleasure to be here.

Ray: I want to start by talking about your background. You’re not the first person to start law school later in life but it is still fairly unusual, so I’d appreciate it if you could share your journey. What led you to decide to become a lawyer?

Lorin: I had been working on social services in a non-profit organization as an executive director and I found myself getting increasingly frustrated because it seemed to be more about politics and paperwork and no substantive changes were happening to make things more accessible for people living with disability. So I was of the view that perhaps getting a better understanding of the law and placing myself within that to be an agent of change could be beneficial.
So there were a number of things that happened along the way whereby the non-profit agency I was working at got their funding cut, majority funding from the government of Canada was cut. I was at a crossroads, didn’t know what I wanted to do next, took a year or so to think about what I wanted to do. Unfortunately, in that time, I was in a car accident that required some rehabilitation and my lawyer at the time asked me what I was going to do next and he said, “Well, why don’t you think about going to law school?” And he said, “You were very helpful in pulling together the information that I needed. You were articulate during the examination for discovery and all of that. I think that you would be a very good lawyer.” And he said, “Why don’t you go to apply to my law school which was Western University in London?” So my thought at the time was okay. Well, how hard can that be? And I only applied to one law school and famous last words. Of course, law school is much harder than you ever expect but once I was in it, I was in it and I did find it very helpful because during – before I even started law school, I was involved with convincing the government of Ontario to enact stronger disability legislation which took place at the end of my first week of law school.

So I got to see things happen before I even got my formal education and but undoubtedly, the formal education did enable me to have the understanding and the authority to put forward an agenda item that would be beneficial to people who live with disabilities and no regret.

Ray: Oh, very good. I know that you were the first person to study at the University of Western Law School with a profound hearing loss and also the first to ask for accommodations from the Hamilton court system. What type of accommodations do you need to practice law with a hearing loss?

Lorin: One thing is it’s very important for people to understand that hearing loss operates on a continuum. There’s not if you are deaf you need this. If you are hard of hearing you need this. And my challenge has always been that apparently, I talk very well. So it belies the fact that I have a profound hearing loss and I only wear a hearing aid in my right ear. If I take it out, I don’t hear a fire alarm at all. And so it can be very difficult for people to understand that the appropriate accommodation that I need may be very different from what they think is appropriate for in my case it was using captioning which is a trained court reporter that types verbatim on a steno keypad like you see in the courthouse but there is a software interface that transcribes the keynote symbols into English that I read on a laptop computer.
So that is very helpful to me and then I also had a notetaker who could take notes because obviously going through a lawyer to get a transcript from examination for discovery and what have you, you know that it’s every single word and it can be a bit of a slog to get through all of those pages. A lot of fillers that you don’t realize that you say until you actually read it. So I also had a notetaker who would capture the main points but of course, notetaking is very subjective. What one person thinks is important, I might want to get more information which the transcript is able to provide for me. But unfortunately, at the university and I’m talking about the university at large as opposed to the law school because the law school doesn’t arrange accommodation, it would be the services for students with disabilities or special needs office that would arrange it.

So they were of the view that it would be more appropriate for me to have notetakers and/or sign language interpreters. But the problem with notetakers, as I mentioned, is it’s very subjective and the second problem is with ASL, American sign language interpreters, it’s not my first language. So even though I learned it in my 20s, I don’t use it frequently and so it’s very hard to take in that information because I’m constantly having to think like any language that’s not what you use. That’s what I needed. I also had an assistive listening device which is a device that I would wear. The professor would wear a microphone. I wear the receiver and it amplifies the professor’s voice to me. But that is challenging too because a lot of professors in law school, they turn their back to write, they’re walking across the room. It also doesn’t capture what students are asking and in a lot of law school courses, they grade you on participation.

Ray:  Yes.

Lorin: So if you’re not able to ask questions based on a comment that a student has made or supplement, then you’re prejudiced by not being able to hear fully which is where the captioning comes in so that I can participate more in real-time. But with the university, it was a challenge for a couple of years. I actually started law school using sign language interpreters because the university denied my request for captioning. And I figured that it was better to start law school part-time with a sign language interpreter and continue fighting from the inside as opposed to sitting back and trying to keep convincing them. And so I did that for my first year which was part-time. Kept trying to convince the powers that be that this was the appropriate accommodation for me and I’m sad to say that it took the threat of a human rights complaint to resolve it. And just before the complaint was going to be mailed out, I think the next day, I was advised that yes, that I would have captioning for law school but only in the class. So the next battle was but what about all those extracurricular activities like mooting competition, guest speakers that come to the school, all those things outside of the classroom lecture proper.

So that was another fight. I won that one. They agreed to allow that. And then the next one was over the issue of taping my lecture because sometimes a notetaker wasn’t available so I had to tape the lectures and have someone take notes after and then one of the professors said no, I forbid you to do that because that goes against the professor’s right for academic freedom to be able to say whatever they want in the classroom if you’re taping a lecture. So I had to point out that under the copyright act that there is a provision if the taping is needed as an accommodation measure that was permissible. Professor disagreed. I challenged him. Let’s go to the Supreme Court of Canada and let’s see how they decide that and backed down. But it sounds all very brave and at the time but those fights were hard. They were extremely difficult because I was a law student. I was also a mature student who was not feeling confident being around classmates who are 20 years younger than me. I have a disability and it’s very hard, if you remember your law school days, going up against a professor.

Ray:  Yes.

Lorin: It would be akin to be an articling student going up against a partner. It’s very intimidating. But I always approached these kind of requests as for the greater good. That if this helps me it’s going to help others as well, not particularly in law school but across the university in future years and that sustained me but it was also really, really hard to do that. And remember, this is 15 years ago and so things have improved somewhat. We’re still not quite there. But it was intimidating. It was in many respects more of a hands-on approach to learning human rights law than it was being in a lecture.

Ray:  What do the statistics tell us about persons with disabilities in the legal profession today in Canada?

Lorin: Know that there’s just about a handful of lawyers across the country who have profound hearing loss such as myself. Before this interview, I thought I would pull up some statistics from the Law Society of Ontario website because they do keep numbers on this. These numbers are from 2016 which is the most recent available and so what I’m looking at – and you can find this online if you’re interested in finding this information. It’s on the Law Society of Ontario website. It’s called a … I’m terrible with saying Ss so …

Ray:  Statistics?

Lorin: Thank you. Sorry. Longer Statistical snapshot of lawyers in Ontario. I hate that.

Ray:  Very good.

Lorin: Hate that word. But that’s what that fact sheet is all about and so what it’s talking about here is how many – they ask the question. It’s mandatory now. What marginalized group you may come from. So for example, they ask do you have a disability and then according to 2016 numbers here, it says that out of 35,650 lawyers in Ontario as of 2016 there were 1,279 who have a disability and not surprisingly, just under a quarter of that number are sole practitioners and then 16 percent are retired or not working and about six and a half percent have other employment. That’s not surprising at all that there is a lot of folks that do go into sole practice. And then when we look at the region by presence of a disability, again not surprising to learn that over half of those lawyers who have a disability are based in Toronto.

Ray:  Yes.

Lorin: Not surprising because that is where you’re going to find more accommodations available for your disability, greater presence of government where a lot of lawyers do tend to gravitate because they know their disability will be accommodated much easier. Those are the numbers. It’s not high, as you can see. These numbers are two years old so possibly new numbers that will be coming out soon will show it rising a bit. But unfortunately, the legal profession proper has not been the most welcoming in terms of accommodating lawyers who have sensory disabilities being sight or hearing difficulties because the focus is very much on bottom line.

How quickly can you get things done?

Ray:  Yes.

Lorin: The tyranny of the billable hour and you may need to do things differently doesn’t mean it’s not as good but it does mean it could take a little longer. You have to do things a little bit differently with some accommodations. It doesn’t mean that your work is compromised in any way and I have personally found there isn’t the welcoming place in terms of diversity and equity. Inclusion issues many times don’t include people who have disabilities. Very big on indigenous people, racialized lawyers, francophone, women and LGBTQ, of course, but in many respects because disability lawyers who have disabilities are considered too few to count. There’s not a lot of us. But at the same token, we’re too many to ignore that even if there’s just a handful, we should still have the same right to be part of an inclusive workplace and I sadly have found that’s not been the case as yet. So that’s why I pointed to that number about how many do end up working for themselves because it’s not surprising.

Ray:  In that context, I understand. What do you think leaders of law organizations can do to make their organizations more welcoming to people with sensory disabilities?

Lorin: Well, what you’re doing today, Ray, has been great because you have quite freely admitted this is who I am. I can’t possibly understand what the perspective is of a racialized lawyer or somebody with a disability or LGBTQ because that’s not my lived experience but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t need to be in it to get it. You just need to be open to understanding it and we’re well aware of how the profession has benefited from widening that definition of inclusion.
We all benefit when there’s more women in leadership positions and LGBTQ and indigenous peoples and all of that, but it takes a leadership from the top to say you know what? I don’t understand, but I want to because this is how it benefits us. It’s a win-win when our law firm, our practice, our business, what have you, is more representative of the people that we serve. You know, if you were an indigenous woman who’s coming into a law firm that is staffed mainly with – no offence, Ray – but middle-aged white men what are you possibly –

Ray:  None taken.

Lorin: - possibly going to understand about the concerns of that indigenous person and that’s why there are specialty legal aid clinics that do support people from marginalized groups but we shouldn’t have that kind of, for a lack of a better word, kind of ghettoization and that we’re not a melting pot in Canada like we are – like they profess to be in the US.

We’re more of a mosaic where every marginalized group, every Canadian has a part to play in the tapestry that’s Canada and that benefits everyone. And so it’s having conversations like this, being mindful of what needs to happen, being just simply aware, asking the question if you don’t know, working from fact sheets or whatever because a lot of times when people are planning an event at a law firm they don’t think about things when they’re planning it like building in accessibility, considering does there need to be alternative formats. Do you have a land acknowledge before your conference opens? Have you done those things to make everyone who participates feel truly welcomed and not singled out?

So it just takes the leaders like you to freely admit I don’t know it all but I want to. Help me understand because it’s only a big deal if you make it a big deal. What we’re doing is not extraordinary. I’m not an extraordinary person because I went to law school and I got my degree. What’s made the experience extraordinary is the fact that I had a lot of obstacles to overcome that should not have been put there because it just – it wasn’t a big deal and it just takes a little thinking outside the box.

Ray:  Thank you. You may not … You may have a profound hearing loss but the visual imagery that you construct with your words compensates for that quite adequately.

Lorin: My mother used to joke that I didn’t learn to talk until I was four and I’ve been making up for lost time ever since.

Ray:  Yeah, fair.

Lorin: Accessibility is not just about being able to go to the doctor’s office or being able to get your groceries or being able to get on the bus or whatever. It’s about those things bigger than that that give texture to life such as going to the theatre, being able to go to a play, going to a community event and being truly welcomed within the community. It’s not just the essential thing because that’s frankly boring. It’s about the fun stuff like going to that concert to see, you know, Bruce Springsteen or whomever and feeling like you are part of that community and not isolated and having to stay home because the world wasn’t built for you and I believe Canada is on track to do better than that.

Ray:  So let’s talk about that because we know that the Accessible Canada Act is currently pending before the Senate. I’d like to hear your perspectives upon that legislation, what you think it will achieve and what your hopes are.

Lorin: The Accessible Canada Act is limited in that it’s only going to apply to sectors in the federal jurisdiction such as banking, telecommunication, transportation industries like air and rail and the government of Canada itself. It’s not going to be a cure-all for everything that is wrong or needs to be fixed within the country and we do have provincial accessibility legislations in place, Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Ontario and with varying degrees of success and so there is no harmonized legislation through all the provinces as well like to mesh with that federal legislation and of course, as you would well know, there’s different jurisdiction between like health care and education, federal and provincial.

Ray:  Shared jurisdiction.

Lorin:So I think a lot of Canadians are not understanding that this is not going to fix everything for folks, but it’s certainly a start because we need to acknowledge that there are six million Canadians in Canada who identify as having a disability. So that’s creeping up to one-quarter of our population identifies as having a disability. But then when you fold in those family members, those friends, those coworkers, community that are all part of living with that person, it rises very quickly to over half of the population is affected in some way and if you don’t have a disability right now, I will welcome you when you do get one because you will.

Ray:  That’s very true.

Lorin: The problem that the disability community has is that the bill is weak as it is at present.

Ray:  Yes. I’ve read some critiques about the use of permissive language rather than mandatory language.

Lorin: Well, and that’s true because right now there’s no deadline for accessibility. It’s just kind of left wide open. With the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, we have the deadline of 2025. We’re not going to get there.

Ray:  Really?

Lorin: It’s quite obvious. I mean we’re –

Ray:  You say in six years.

Lorin: - already at 2019. It’s six years from now. It’s very apparent that we’re not going to get there and I was involved with getting that AODA as it’s called in. That was that conference that I organized at the end of my first week of law school. Very hopeful, but we’re just not going to get there. Infrastructure is a huge piece of it, transportation to make it truly accessible because without accessible transportation you can’t get to your job, you can’t do this, that and the other thing and so that’s really the linchpin and transportation is very expensive to make accessible. And the other thing is there’s no mandatory duties within the Accessible Canada Act in that, for example, within five years from when this regulation comes into force this will be done. That’s not in there either. And we have to also make sure that the bill doesn’t reduce the right of people who live with disabilities. For example, the biggest one is that no public money should ever be dispersed that is going to create or perpetuate barriers for people with disabilities. So the government of Canada should not be providing any fund without that commitment that there will be no new barrier put in place and that’s why we were very pleased that Carla Qualtrough had the disability portfolio back because she’s also the minister for public procurement and so that is a key piece as well.

So I understand the frustrations that the senators want to get this back to the house. That the politicians want to vote this because of course, this was under the mandate of the Liberal Party back in 2015 under their sunny ways, this is what we’re going to do. We were all very hopeful but I don’t want to see it happen at the expense of passing a weak bill which may or may not be fixable after it’s put into effect. It can be a lot more difficult to change and amend a bill once it’s passed than to let’s just do it right the first time.

Ray:  Justice Rosalie Abella is one of my favourite jurists and I understand that one of her quotes is a favourite of yours as follows: “In differences in justice’s incubator it’s not just what you stand for, it’s what you stand up for and we can never forget how the world looks to those who are vulnerable.”

Lorin: And I was there – I was present when Madame Justice Abella said that quote. She said it many times over different venues but I was at Western when she presented at a labour law conference and said that quote and I still get chills every time I hear it. She’s my favourite jurist as well, so. And just if you’ve ever – anyone out there who’s ever had the opportunity to hear Madame Justice Abella speak, please take it. I was privileged to hear her during holocaust week presenting and her lived experience as the child of holocaust survivors is – it’s incredibly moving. It’s very, very powerful and most certainly informed her approach to the law today and that quote really stands out for me because it’s not what you stand for, it’s what you stand up for.

It’s all well and good to espouse this and that and then I believe in this and this is right, but if you don’t stand up when you see that kind of injustice happening then what’s changing? You know, nothing’s really changing. And so I’ve tried to follow her lead in a very small way to make sure that my voice is heard, that it’s not just my voice but it’s all of the many, many people who have gone before me as well as who are behind me who are unable to speak for themselves. I try and point out those injustices most often not intentional. I don’t believe that people intend to discriminate. They just don’t know and they’re ignorant and so it requires a lot of patience and because attitudes are the hardest to overcome.

Ray:  Final question. In recognizing your point earlier about those of us who are currently able-bodied but may develop a disability, what would you like us that are currently able-bodied to understand about living with a disability?

Lorin: Well, I call you folks, Ray, I call you TABs, temporarily able bodies because it’s not going to be long. If you live long enough then you are likely to acquire a disability and I think the most important thing is that my big thing is to try and find a way to normalize disability. We could get rid of that word altogether. It’s just talking about varying ability. You may have more when you’re younger, less when you’re older, but you still have abilities nonetheless and it’s on a continuum and it’s part of life, you know. You buy a brand new shiny car, you drive it off the lot, the feeling that you have, the smell of that leather and all of that, it’s great, but your car does get older. Do you love it less, you know, after you’ve had it for ten years or whatever? It’s still that solid car. Maybe not all shiny and new, but we’ve become a society that in some respects devalues decreasing ability and we really need to normalize that and recognize that it’s on a continuum.

There is no handbook of if you’re blind you do this for your clients and if you’re deaf you do this, if you meet an LGBTQ community member this is what you say, if you meet a black lawyer make sure you say this or that. Or if you meet an indigenous lawyer make sure you, you know, have this with you or whatever. That’s baloney. You know, we’re people first. We’re all members of the human race and so respect is the key and ask the question. If you don’t know just say, you know, how do you prefer that I recognize you or how can I make your experience as comfortable as possible?

Some people will refer to me as hearing impaired. I’m not a fan of that term. I prefer living with a hearing loss but somebody else might say I’m fine with hearing impaired. Okay. And so it’s just it’s about respect initially and recognizing that it’s on a continuum. It’s about collaboration. How can I help you to make this experience to my office or whatever as comfortable as possible? And you can’t say when I had this client this is what they used. Well, that was that client. This is another client who may have the same spectrum of a disability or ability but do something different. I have – I use captioning. Someone else who has the same level of hearing loss that I do prefers sign language interpreters. Is one better? Is one not? Absolutely not. It’s just about being flexible, being open, being respectful.
Ray:  Well, thank you very much, Lorin. I appreciate you taking the time to be here. It has been incredibly insightful for me. I have learned a lot and as I said earlier, despite your profound hearing loss you’re very good at creating pictures with your words.

Lorin: Thank you.

Ray:  So thank you very much.

Lorin: Well, and I think it’s incredible what you’re doing, Ray, to really bring the diversity of our CBA members to the forefront because the CBA is composed of a lot of very different members across this great country of ours as I’m sure you’re learning. So thank you so much, Ray.

Ray:  Have you experienced discrimination or exclusion in your law school or law firm because of your gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, your skin colour or physical abilities? On the other hand, how have you experienced inclusivity? We want to hear your stories. You can reach us with the Twitter handle @CBA_news on Facebook or on Instagram at @Canadian Bar Association. You can listen to this podcast and others on our CBA channel Every Lawyer, in Spotify, Apple podcast and Stitcher and please leave us a review. Subscribe to receive notifications for new episodes. To hear us in French listen to our Juriste branche podcast. Listen for us next time when we’ll be talking to CBA members who have been there, experienced that and have stories to tell about it. Thanks for listening.