Disability | Interview | News

Onley’s insights

David Onley, former Lieutenant Governor & polio survivor, on COVID lessons and the fragile gift of life.

He holds honorary degrees from 10 Canadian universities; he’s received both the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada; he’s in the Terry Fox Hall of Fame, and the town where he was born named a park after him. Yet when he answered the phone for our interview, the Honourable David Onley sounded like any other grandparent during COVID-19 – excited that his grandchildren, finally able to visit again, were coming over soon.

David Onley worked as a journalist before serving as Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 2007 to 2014. He was the first Canadian with a visible disability in both of those public roles. His physical disability stems from an earlier epidemic: polio, which he contracted in 1953 at age three.

a boy in between two older boys in sailor clothes
David Onley as a young boy.

“I missed my family terribly,” he says of spending seven months at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto, “but there’s a resiliency to children that young.” Over multiple waves of the disease, occurring from 1927 to 1962, an estimated 50,000 Canadians, mostly children, suffered paralysis from polio, and four thousand died. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Paul Martin Jr. are all polio survivors. David Onley recovered, but the disease left its mark. He underwent therapy to gain use of his hands and arms and was eventually able to walk with leg braces and crutches. Today he uses an electric scooter. “It wasn’t until the Salk vaccine came along [in 1953] that really blunted the true fear that parents had of their children coming down with polio.”

Curious about parallels between polio and COVID, I initially contacted David Onley with a handful of history questions. But during our hour-long conversation, Onley shared at least two perspectives on the current pandemic that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the news: that people with disabilities have been disproportionately affected by the virus and that COVID long-haulers are on track to raise the percentage of Canadians with disabilities. Epidemics of the past certainly have valuable lessons for today, but more important, according to Onley, is what can be learned from people with disabilities on a regular basis.

Misleading headlines

In 2020, the majority of COVID cases – 81 percent, according to Statistics Canada – were “residents of senior citizen homes and long-term care facilities.”

“As soon as I heard that,” Onley says, “I knew something was wrong. What struck me was that both government and media were not using the correct terms.” They should have said “disabled persons who happened to be seniors and disabled persons living in long term care facilities. If you are able-bodied, you do not live in a long-term care facility.”

“People with disabilities form the largest single cohort affected by COVID,” he says. He describes a side lot full of empty wheelchairs left out in the rain in front of Camilla Care Community long-term care home in Toronto, abandoned because their users had died. The last three provincial governments in Ontario haven’t done enough to take care of people with disabilities, Onley says. “A huge percentage of the COVID deaths didn’t have to happen; many seniors’ homes and long-term care facilities had zero cases and zero deaths. The governments of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia did far superior jobs than Ontario and Quebec.”

Essentially, people with disabilities are still treated like second class citizens, he says, even though statistically 22 percent of Canadians have a disability. Those who try to live independently often have “a desperately poor quality of life,” living on less than $1,200 per month, according to Onley.

When you ask Canadians to name national heroes, two severely disabled people – Terry Fox and Rick Hansen – regularly show up in the polls. “So, we’re proud to characterize them as heroes,” Onley says, pointing out that this doesn’t happen in other countries, “but we’re not prepared to provide the kind of assistance that could allow other persons with disabilities the opportunity to be heroes. Or, if not heroes, to lead lives other than lives of terrible desperation.”

I ask Onley whether he thought the COVID long-haulers – the people taking months to recover – might be considered people with disabilities in the future. “Yes, absolutely,” he says, “a friend of mine is one of them. In his 50s, athletic, not an ounce of fat on him – he caught COVID in January and he’s still not back at work. He’s just debilitated.” Onley thinks that more long-haulers will struggle with returning to work, raising the percentage of Canadians with disabilities from 22 percent to 25 “in the blink of an eye. A quarter of the population.”

And if federal and provincial governments aren’t doing enough to help, this growing demographic represents a huge opportunity for Canadian churches. “We have to examine our hearts and examine what we are doing, as we call ourselves Christian,” Onley, who was raised Baptist, says.

“What percentage of our congregations is persons with disabilities?” he asks. Is it anywhere close to the general population’s 22 percent, and “if not, why not?”

Onley and his wife Ruth attend Yorkminster Park Baptist Church in downtown Toronto, where his grandparents were founding members in the late 1920s.

Living within limits

As we’re talking, Onley searches online for “epidemics in Canada” and rattles off the flu of ’57, SARS and H1N1. I ask what lessons we might learn from pandemics of the past. “The fragility of life,” he says; people with disabilities have a PhD in that particular lesson, with much to teach others on the subject. Coping with lockdown has also been easier for people with disabilities, Onley continues, because “they are more used to those limits.”

What advice would Onley give to people who are still on the fence about getting the COVID-19 vaccine?

“Get it immediately,” he says. “If you can get it sooner than immediately, do that too. A lot of Christian doctors are supportive of this. I just don’t know any science that shows the vaccines as a danger.”

“There is a reality that a certain percentage of people will succumb to any vaccine. Children in the 1950s did die from the polio vaccine, but it was an infinitesimally small number compared to the total millions of vaccines. People die. And at young ages. We’re just not promised anything. We really could go at any time. We need to know our relationship with Christ and not take anything for granted.”
As we emerge from lockdown, as more Canadians receive the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s a timely reminder for all of us – whatever segment of the population we are in. Maybe this pandemic will finally teach us that life is a fragile gift from God.

By the time our conversation wraps up, there’s a noticeable increase in background noise on Onley’s end. “I’d better let you go,” I say, smiling.

Visits from grandchildren, after a long year apart?

Another gift that, Lord willing, we won’t take for granted again.

  • Angela became Editor of CC in 2009, having learned English grammar in Moscow, research skills in grad school and everything else on the fly. Her vision is for CC to give body to a Reformed perspective by exploring what it means to follow Jesus today. She hopes that the shared stories of God at work in the world inspire each reader to participate in the ongoing task of renewing his creation. Angela lives in Newcastle, Ontario with her husband, Allan, and three children.

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