Dean for a Day: Trading places on wheels

York student Michael Dytyniak began his day as dean of Osgoode Hall Law School by instructing his eager student Patrick Monahan on the finer points of manoeuvring a wheelchair. "You’ve got it down and you can do some pretty tight turns," said Dytyniak as he demonstrated the wheelchair to Monahan.

"Make sure no one fiddles with your brakes. If you are parked it is good [to have the brake on], but if you are slowing yourself down, use your hands because if you stop suddenly, you’ll go flying," cautioned Dytyniak.

Above: "Dean" Michael Dytyniak (left) is congratulated by first-year student, and dean for the other days, Patrick Monahan

The winner of the law school’s Dean for a Day contest, Dytyniak, a first-year law student, traded places with Monahan, dean of the law school, on Thursday, Oct. 11. Dytniak assumed the trappings and role of the law school dean for one day. Monahan, in turn, accepted Dytyniak’s challenge to spend a day attending classes while in a wheelchair.

The Dean for a Day annual essay contest solicits ideas from Osgoode students on how they would run the law school. Dytyniak, who uses a wheelchair to get around, wrote a compelling essay about the need to address access challenges in the Osgoode Hall Law School Building and on the Keele campus. Dytyniak has cerebral palsy and has been in a wheelchair for most of his life.

"Every place that my wheelchair cannot go is an example of exclusion," wrote Dytyniak, whose essay appears in full in this week’s Obiter Dicta, the student newspaper of Osgoode Hall Law School. "However, the coming building expansion represents a golden opportunity."

As dean, Dytyniak said he "would work to make the Osgoode building a physical representation of the school’s mandate of inclusiveness, and a model for other institutions."

"Michael also challenged me – and I’ve accepted his challenge – to sit in a wheelchair for a day to gain, in his words, ‘what is probably a new perspective’," said Monahan beforehand. "I am sure it will be a great personal learning experience for me, and very helpful in view of the fact that we are currently finalizing the design plans for our renovation and expansion project."

After a lesson on how to work the wheelchair, they got down to important business, including an overview of access challenges that Dytyniak has encountered in the Osgoode Hall Law School building. Dytyniak pointed out some of the challenges Monahan would face, such as how to get lunch (many of the entrees are displayed above wheelchair level), and how to manoeuvre through the doors to the Moot Court room and a number of classrooms which do not have an automatic door opener.

Then it was time for the pair to embark on a trial roll-about with Dytyniak wheeling adeptly through the doorway and into the hall, and Monahan, after several attempts, following. After the test roll-around, student Monahan was off to cover Dytyniak’s classes, including a make-up class that had been missed due to the Thanksgiving holiday. Dytyniak had a meeting with Michael Markicevic, York’s assistant vice-president, Campus Services & Business Operations, about accessibility on the Keele campus.

In his essay, Dytyniak said some of the access points he would tackle as dean would include: 

  • installing a door opener on every building entrance, major classroom and washroom;
  • a ramp to make the mixing area accessible;
  • a wheelchair-accessible washroom on every floor;
  • widening the doorway to the student services hallway;
  • providing extra space for service-oriented offices.

"It was humbling and challenging to be in Michael’s place," said Monahan at the end of his day. "I was surprised by the obstacles I encountered, getting in doorways was especially challenging and so was getting lunch. There was some food that I could not see because it was at a higher level on the counters."

Monahan, whose arms were hurting him from operating his wheelchair, said the experience made him more mindful of access issues at Osgoode. One of the areas he wants to improve is the number of door openers at the Law School.

Dytyniak grew up in Mississauga, Ont., and is the oldest of three. "I come from a family of overachievers," he said. A graduate of the University of Toronto, Dytyniak said that after he completes his law degree, he plans to work in the area of human rights including social justice and disability rights. "What motivates me is to help other people. I am not interested in corporate law," said Dytyniak with a grin.

"I hope to raise awareness about access and inclusiveness, in the community as a whole. I am hoping to get the wider community to think about these issues actively," said Dytyniak about his goals for his term as Dean for a Day. "If you spend a day with a person in a wheelchair, you can gain a whole different perspective. With the new building project for Osgoode, it is a golden time to make some of these changes.

"Everyone at Osgoode has been great. My classmates are terrific and the staff and faculty have been really wonderful and responsive. I love the community and I would not want to be anywhere else," said Dytyniak.

This year’s essay contest elicited the most submissions ever. The judges, Osgoode Associate Dean Robert Wai and Assistant Dean Gina Alexandris, said the submissions "were all good and often very creative in form and content." They found Dytyniak’s essay to be particularly "well-written and thoughtful" and said it identified "a crucial student issue"

To read the full essay, visit the Obiter Dicta Web site, click on "2007-2008 issues" and choose the Oct. 15 issue.