As an entrepreneur, lawyer and pioneering advocate for people living with disabilities, Lorin MacDonald has helped many traverse their path more easily. Her many accomplishments in the world of accessibility and inclusion include policy development, building ramps, assistive listening devices and captioning. MacDonald became a lawyer later in her career (she currently runs a private practice focused on human rights), believing a deeper appreciation of the law would enable her to more effectively advocate for people living with disabilities. It certainly has.
But one particular struggle continued to frustrate MacDonald: as someone living with a profound hearing loss, she was constantly shut out of live events because a lack of captioning made them inaccessible. She knew she was not alone in her struggle to gain equal access to communication. So in 2019 MacDonald founded HearVue, a social enterprise dedicated to advancing the accessibility and inclusion of in-person/online events and online content through the use of captioning and subtitles. Thanks to her ongoing work in the field MacDonald was recently awarded the Diversity & Inclusiveness Award by Universal Women’s Network™.
SEE Change recently spoke with MacDonald about what inspired her work as social entrepreneur and human rights advocate, the challenges she and other people living with disabilities continue to face and what keeps her hopeful about the future of inclusive communities.
Tell us about HearVue and what inspired you to launch the social enterprise. What are the challenges you’re trying to tackle?
HearVue was born out of frustration after years of attending (or wanting to attend) inaccessible live events. As a person with profound hearing loss who does not use sign language, I need communication support in the form of captioning to follow what is being said at such events, held in typically large venues with often poor acoustics. The tipping point was in 2018 when international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney appeared at Luminato. I very much wanted to attend but was told that captioning would not be available. The alternative was to spend top dollar to get seats near the front (nearly impossible) and lipread (missing much of the content). I decided not to go and vowed to provide a solution.
Many organizers and promoters have lots of excuses for not making their events accessible: it’s too expensive, no one has asked for it, it’s too risky if it doesn’t work, we don’t have the expertise, etc. etc. I created HearVue to knock down every one of those arguments. During the first phase, HearVue provided captioning at no cost to large events; demonstrated how captioning supports everyone (people with hearing loss, English as a Second Language learners, those with learning disabilities, and those with no hearing loss who miss content due to unfamiliar speech patterns, distractions, and poor acoustics); provided A/V expertise in advance of and during the event; and provided support on-site.
HearVue’s first event took place in October 2019 in Hamilton with Michelle Obama before a limited audience. Following that success, services were provided to over a dozen prominent live events right up to mid-March and the forced shutdown of live events due to COVID.
Organizers, promoters, and attendees were blown away by how much value was added to events and were committed to integrate communication accessibility. It was incredibly gratifying to see the culture changing!
What type of law do you practice and why?
After forays in Administrative Law and Personal Injury Law early in my career, this just validated my belief that Human Rights Law was the right area for me. Initially, it was felt that I should be exposed to various areas of law to become well rounded. However, I started law school at the age of 41, after a career in non-profit challenging systemic discrimination and a lifetime of overcoming disability discrimination barriers.
My lived experience was my biggest asset in advocating for my clients (I predominantly support people living with disabilities who have experienced discrimination). In 2015, I opened my own human rights law practice and took on cases that had the ability to create broad change. The August 2020 Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario decision which found in my client’s favour reaffirmed that restaurants cannot discriminate against patrons with disabilities who need to use the restroom.
What are you most proud of?
I am fortunate to have three things that cross over both areas. I am very proud to have been part of the team that encouraged the provincial government in 2004 to enact stronger disability legislation. That year, a grassroots, fully accessible forum convinced the government of the day that standards could be implemented to create change. The Accessibility for Canadians with Disabilities Act (AODA) was introduced six weeks later to unanimous party support and became law in June 2005 – a fast track from introduction to enactment of only eight months!
While its intended goal of Ontario being barrier-free by 2025 is no longer within grasp, it introduced mandatory rather than voluntary compliance and provided a template for other provinces (Manitoba, Nova Scotia) as well as the Accessible Canada Act. I was privileged to be a member of the Customer Service Standard Development Committee and presently a member of the Health Care Standard Development Committee.
Secondly, I am proud to be the first to introduce captioning to various sectors: post-secondary (Ryerson and Western Universities); the judicial system (courts in Hamilton and London, as well as various Ontario Social Justice Tribunals); professional associations (the Ontario Bar Association, the Law Society of Ontario, and the Women’s Law Association); and cultural venues for live theatre (The Grand Theatre in London and Mirvish Productions in Toronto). I also appeared in an Ontario Government video that highlighted the benefits of accessibility in my personal and professional life, which included a scene with a captioner in a courtroom. All of this served to educate and move us closer to a more inclusive society.
Thirdly, I have taken on human rights cases that I felt would create change far beyond one person against one organization. It is gratifying to me to hear from former clients that discrimination previously experienced at large public venues have now disappeared so that everyone can enjoy the facility. As mentioned previously, the washroom access case had a huge impact.
When the application was first filed, I carefully framed the issues to demonstrate how access to washrooms is a basic human right that goes to the core of dignity. Many experience discrimination with respect to access, including transgender persons, those who require a change table (for adults or babies), and people living with disabilities. This positioning resonated with The Toronto Star and in March 2017, they featured my client on the front page and the story went viral around the world.
What are the greatest challenges facing people with disabilities in Canada?
Without question, attitudes are the largest barriers that many Canadians living with disabilities face, with non-disabled people determining what we can and cannot do. There is little interest in adopting creative approaches to accommodation to enable people of varying abilities to fully participate in all facets of Canadian life; it is viewed as easier to keep people with disabilities out of view and on social assistance.
Unemployment and underemployment is a fact of life. Saying to businesses that “it’s the right thing to do” doesn’t always work and the business case for hiring people with disabilities needs to be advanced. It is strongly demonstrated that there are many benefits to employers: increased revenues, reduced costs, improved shareholder value, and improved workplace and product/service innovation.
What needs to happen for effect real change? Do you have hope that things will improve significantly?
For things to really change, I believe that everyone needs to have a vested interest, to actually care about people with disabilities. The majority of us, if we live long enough, will acquire a disability. The concepts of inclusion and universal design need to constantly be advanced. Everyone has a unique perspective to share.
If you do not intentionally include, you unintentionally exclude. Like I say on HearVue’s website, “Diversity is a fact. Inclusion is an act.”
The appearance of COVID-19 has served to shine a glaring spotlight on gaps in our social structures. It has also served to demonstrate the many innovations that are enabling people to work effectively from home, which for years was considered not possible. This benefits people living with disabilities tremendously, especially those who rely upon accessible transit, which in itself is often unreliable.
However, pandemic financial supports have demonstrated that Canadians without disabilities are valued higher than those with disabilities. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the new Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) provide financial support that is nearly double that of Canadians living on disability assistance. The rallying cry has been for the development of a Basic Income Allowance to support those who are unable to work, as well as an effective strategy to boost employment initiatives.
All of this requires a shift in culture to regulate behaviour, no easy task but it can be done. Consider before 1976, seatbelts were not mandatory in cars; in the late 1980’s, smoking on airplanes was permitted; pre-2010, one could smoke in indoor public spaces, public transit, and workplaces. Littering and drunk driving result in severe fines. Yet somehow, it is still permissible for people using wheelchairs to be denied access to many buildings, or to enter via a back door or use of a freight elevator. Once inside a building, a washroom is either downstairs or physically inaccessible. Communication accessibility is deemed “too expensive”.
Yes, education is slowly shifting the culture but the time it takes is maddening. However, slow and steady wins the race but the toll it takes on advocates is considerable.