Honouring the late David Onley

We at the Centre for Global Disability Studies (CGDS) wish to honour the late Honorable David Onley. David was an award-winning journalist, disability advocate, and the former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, who won both the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada for his lifetime of public service. Among his many contributions, David completed a landmark review of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, which reminds us that there remains much work to be done to create an accessible Ontario. At the University of Toronto, David was a Senior Lecturer and Special Advisor on Disability Studies. He offered a popular course on “The Politics of Disability” and was a founding member of CGDS. David’s wisdom, friendship, and advocacy have left an indelible mark on a generation of students and faculty at the University of Toronto.

[Image description: Photo of David Onley sitting outside. He is looking off to the side.  The sun is hitting the left side of his face.]

[Image description: David Onley, behind a podium, speaking at a U of T graduation ceremony.]

David’s students remember the significance of being able to learn from his lifetime of advocacy and contributions to disability policy. As someone with a physical disability, he also offered important support, mentorship, and representation.  

Photo of David Onley at the April 29th 2011 Shuttle launch in Florida. 

[ Image description: David is smiling at the camera.  His wife stands beside him on his left, and to his right is the Canadian flag.  Behind him is a model satellite.]

“Professor Onley made an unsafe place welcoming to me… He truly reminded me of why I came to university at all, the learning I hoped to do here and the ways I want to show up for my community and in the world. He emphasized just with his brilliance & with his being that there is always more to do, more to learn, more access to create. I can still hear him talking about the lack of fire safety plans for wheelchair users at supposedly accessible institutions, which, as he might say, ‘boggles the mind!’ I am grateful that I had the privilege of learning from Professor Onley… None of this feels expansive enough for the impact that he made not only on my life but the lives of so many disabled people across Ontario, but these are the words I have now. Thank you for everything, Professor Onley.”  


“It is hard to describe how great of an impact Professor David Onley made on my life, and how dearly he will be missed. As a past student of Professor Onley’s, and current MD-PhD student here at UofT, the inspiration and mentorship I received continues to define the work I do today, and goals for my career ahead. I first came to know Professor Onley as a student in his ‘Politics of Disability’ class, a political science course I took in my fourth and final year at UTSC. As a neuroscience student, it was unlike any course I had ever experienced. Being an individual with a physical disability myself, I was interested in learning more about, as the course name suggests, the ‘politics of disability’ here in Canada. I never could have imagined just how widely my perspective would broaden after taking Professor Onley’s course, and how it would feed into my life moving forward. Towards the end of the course, an opportunity came up to begin volunteering with the Government of Canada as a Youth Accessibility Leader (YAL). In this role, youth partner with community organizations to address accessibility barriers, through the Enabling Accessibility Fund grant opportunity. Initially, I doubted myself, and ability to life up to this role. Professor Onley was a huge source of encouragement in me becoming involved. I have now been a YAL for six years, engaging with countless inspirational individuals and contributing to a more accessible Ontario. Mentorship from Professor Onley over the years has continued to feed into my current activities and plans for the future. As a medical student, I’ve become a member of the Canadian Association of Physicians with Disabilities (CAPD), which helps to break down barriers for medical learners, physicians, and patients alike. Professor Onley also played a pivotal role in the direction of my PhD research, which focuses on the representation of disability in theatre and film. Perhaps the greatest gift of all from Prof. Onley was helping me to see my own lifelong challenges with a disability in a new light. Through my time knowing Professor Onley, I have been empowered to become an advocate and a leader for improved accessibility here in Canada. As I continue forward as a clinician, scholar, and artist, his imprint will be present in all that I do. Thank you, Professor Onley, for everything. Words cannot describe how deeply you will be missed, and the impact you had on the UTSC community, and beyond.” 

Olivia Rennie, former undergraduate student

“David Onley’s passion for disability advocacy in academics is what led me to ask him to be University of Toronto’s Accessibility Awareness Club’s keynote speaker for our March Conference ‘Ableism in the Classroom.’ I will always treasure our conversations in which we shared our frustrations regarding the challenges of physical accessibility. It was a pleasure to have met him before he passed, leaving a powerful legacy of disability advocacy in his wake.” 

Catherine Dume, President of University of Toronto Accessibility Awareness Club
This photo was taken when David Onley received his honorary degree from U of T on June 10th 2009. 

[Image description: David is looking at the camera with a half smile, wearing his graduation gown.]

David’s colleagues remember his kindness, his generosity with his time, and his passion for teaching and disability studies: 

“What strikes me most about my interactions with David was that he was so open to everyone who approached him. I used to be pleasantly surprised that he always took my phone or video calls, given how busy he was — and his elevated status in the disability community as well as within the political frame of the province. But I’ve since realized that he likely took everyone’s calls, he was just that type of person: he listened and shared with others, no matter what their background. One of the more indelible memories of my conversations with David are from those that we shared during the height of the pandemic.  As someone who had held high office in Ontario, people with disabilities turned to him for help and advice as they confronted the social, political and medical exigencies of COVID-19. He empathized with those who sought him out. He felt their anxiety and discouragement. Having just completed the formal review of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), David had hoped that his critique and suggestions would be embraced by politicians, policy-makers, and the public. But, as he listened to disabled Ontarians who could not afford to feed themselves or pay for accommodations, he felt as though he couldn’t amplify their voices enough so that those in power would listen. While David never complained, I sensed his frustration at not being able to accomplish more even as he leaned heavily into his work as an advocate and educator.  As I knew him, David lived a life which bridged the erudite world of critical disability studies alongside trying to combat the very palpable and painful prejudice and disadvantage of living with a disability in this province. And, he never lost sight of the importance of both realms. He loved the university and, UTSC in particular.  He loved teaching and being with his colleagues and students. But he also continued to ‘fight in the streets.’” 

Chloe Atkins, Associate Professor of Political Science

“I met David in early 2016, the same month in which I returned to teaching after losing the ability to walk independently more than a year previously. At the time, I was filled with anxieties about how pain and disability would affect my work, my interactions with students, and my capacity to function as a member of the faculty. I ran into David on campus – almost literally, as I found myself inelegantly steering my motorized scooter around the table where he was having lunch. He struck up a conversation about my assistive device, and within minutes he slid onto a chair so I could test out his own wheels, spurred on by a joking ‘rivalry’ over the relative merits of 3- vs 4-wheeled scooters. He offered me what I desperately needed at that moment: someone to help normalize my experiences of disability, and to help me check my own self-stigma. In subsequent conversations we had over many cups of tea, David’s perspective on living with disability continued to be an anchor point for me, a source of perspective and understanding. To take one example, when I expressed frustration over an accessible door that had been installed in my office wing for me, which had been placed in such a way as to render it impossible to use, he could laugh at the absurdity while also offering a historical perspective: he had chosen UTSC for his own undergraduate education in part because it was (so he told me) the most accessible campus in Canada at the time. If things have changed for Ontarians since he was a student, it is in large measure because of David himself. I remain grateful to him for the massive shifts in policy and public access that he continued to be instrumental in bringing about. And I am also grateful for the smaller – but no less profound – ways he cared for the disabled people around him on an everyday, personal level.” 

Bianca Dahl, Assistant Professor of Anthropology

“David Onley had passion for teaching disability issues and for his students. Several of my own students identified his course, ‘The Politics of Disability’, as dynamic in scope and student-focused. We met often in his office to talk about teaching strategies and shared resources, even teaching our courses in tandem to share guest speakers. He had a great ability to tell stories with humour, often sharing personal stories about his extensive personal and work life in journalism and public office. His generosity to his students included bringing guest speakers and scholars from across the University of Toronto. For instance, he used his influence to open up opportunities for his students to have valuable volunteer roles at the campus Invictus Games in 2016 where they could learn first-hand about accessibility planning. David inspired those around him to imagine UTSC as a place for teaching disability issues and theory on campus. I enjoyed joining him on panel discussions and dropping by his office to chat about teaching issues. He was articulate in the positive benefits for academic learning and advocacy. He argued that it would bring together campus colleagues already invested in the issues, open the door to expanding this area, and give students more opportunities to learn about disability issues and advocacy. It was a pleasure to sit on the early planning committees with him that helped found the Centre for Global Disability Studies. ‘Disability studies at UTSC,’ he once said, ‘is my legacy project.’” 

Nancy Jonston, Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies

[Image description: Above is a collage of five photos. 

Descriptions from top left corner, counterclockwise:

1. David is sitting in the middle of a group of disabled athletes on a basketball court posing for the camera.

2.  David receiving his regalia for his honorary degree. The gown is red with pink sleeves

3. A photo of David and his wife at the King’s plate in 2009. They are surrounded by RCMP- two are standing beside them and the rest are on horseback behind them.

4. David is dropping a puck for two kids to face off at a Youth Hockey League opening in Scarborough.

5. David appears to be on a stage at the 2020 ParaPan Am games. He is waving a white flag in his left hand.]

Photos provided by the UTSC library