Remembering David Onley, A Mentor, Friend and Champion of SCIO
David Onley is a familiar name across SCIO’s community, and one that invites delightful memories for many. The former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario devoted his life to enhancing accessibility in the province, and indeed, Canada, with no shortage of admirers and mentees in the disability community.
Mr. Onley was a member of our organization for more than three decades and was instrumental in the space of disability advocacy, with much of his work tied to the implementation of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). It is no surprise then, that this year’s Activist of the Year Award is presented to Mr. Onley, a champion of disability rights who was known for his elegant and approachable demeanor.
Although he cannot be with us, his memory lives on within our community, in which he mentored people with disabilities, often witnessed in passionate conversation with others, providing insights and guidance for their career paths or simply sharing a laugh about everyday experiences.
We heard from SCIO’s own Peter Athanasopoulos, Director of Public Policy, who fondly remembers Mr. Onley in his early stages of rehab after sustaining a spinal cord injury.
“David Onley was always a mentor to me,” shares Peter, “I was injured at a young age when I was 17. At the time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do career-wise, but he visited Lyndhurst when I was in rehab and we spoke a lot. He encouraged me to consider public policy. He had developed the Public Policy curriculum at the University of Toronto and always advised me on initiatives we were working at SCIO.”
Peter further shares that Mr. Onley was always willing to be a keynote speaker at SCIO events and often addressed our community about key issues including attendant services. He was a member of SCIO for many decades and participated actively in our Queens Park days.
“David Onley was a kind and humble man that was always giving his time, energy and enthusiasm, providing mentorship to others to be at their best and encourage positive mindfulness,” says Peter, who has been an SCIO staff member for more than 20 years.
But Mr. Onely’s influence goes far beyond the SCIO community and has inspired the life of major activists in the disability space, including none other than Maayan Ziv, CEO of AccessNow, who beams with joy at his memory.
“I first met him at a community event where he was giving a talk, I must have been 19 or 20,” says Maayan. “Someone said ‘you should come meet him’ and it was a brief interaction.”
It wasn’t until later that Maayan and Mr. Onley would next interact, this time, with Maayan as a photographer for an event hosted by Easter Seals. “
He had seen my work and began to take an interest in me through my photography,” shares Maayan. “A few years later, it was the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and I received a medal from David Onley. He awarded it to me for my work as an artist and creating awareness for people with disabilities. When he gave it to me, he said ‘use it wisely.’ I didn’t understand what that meant at the time, but as I moved from photography to advocacy, it started to make sense.”
Maayan shares that Mr. Onley invited her to take his final portrait in office, where she also photographed his beloved wife, Ruth Ann. “It was in the big room at Queens Park. We had tea afterwards and talked about so many things. It was the portrait they used at his funeral and in the media and that was special. I was able to see him in a way that maybe other photographers couldn’t,” says Maayan, reflecting on her lived experience with a disability.
“He had always seen potential in me,” she shares, “He gave me the hope to believe in myself. He was powerful and important but whenever we spent time together, he made me feel special, believing my voice was enough.”
Maayan recalls his exceptional warmth and kindness and a spectacular ability to inject relatable humor into his talks. “He was always dealing with heavy subject matter, but he wouldn’t beat around the bush, especially toward the end of his career. He would find a way to invite the public into the change. Never created an ‘us versus them’ mentality. He was personable and powerful – I looked up to him and learned a lot from him. He was a mentor and dear friend to me,” says Maayan.
We also spoke to David Lepofsky, the Chair of the AODA Alliance who is well known in the disability community and was good friends with Mr. Onley. “A key part of David’s legacy was the Onley report. He pointed out the lack of leadership from a provincial standpoint when it comes to the AODA. His legacy is a road map to make this province accessible and we need the government to actually pick it up and follow it,” says Lepofsky who is blind. “David was very open when he stated that we need effective enforcement of strong disability legislation.”
David touches on Mr. Onley’s career as a journalist prior to his work in disability advocacy. “David Onley’s skills developed as a journalist helped him later on in other roles. Even his report on the AODA read like the work of a journalist. He pointed out that the unemployment rate among people with disabilities is a national shame. He said that at Queens Park and shed light on the fact that we need to do better.”
We are grateful to Mr. Onley for his dedication to making life more accessible for people with disabilities. His memory and legacy will live on at SCIO.