Learning from the disability rights master

Like so many other Osgoode students who filled the law school’s Moot Court Room on March 2, student Dale Turner was moved as he listened to disability rights activist and lawyer David Lepofsky (LLB ’79) deliver a stirring cri de coeur for a barrier-free Ontario for people with disabilities.

“He did a fantastic job of conveying what a day in the life is like for someone with low or no vision,” said the 22-year-old legally blind first-year law student. “I could identify with all the challenges he mentioned.”

Right: From left, David Lepofsky with Dale Turner

Last year, Turner became the first Canadian among a handful of patients in the world to receive experimental gene therapy for a rare, hereditary eye disease called Leber’s congenital amaurosis (LCA). 

About five per cent of his right eye was treated for the disease that usually begins stealing light in early childhood and leads to total blindness in a person’s 20s or 30s. The rest of his right eye, as well as his left eye, will also be treated in the not-too-distant future. 

Doctors have been encouraged by his response to the procedure. “I can see a light 10,000 times dimmer than I could before the surgery,” said a grinning Turner in an interview following Lepofsky’s address. 

Before coming to Osgoode, the handsome and articulate Trent University business graduate talked on the phone to Lepofsky, who is also blind, about the law and the challenges they both face as individuals with visual impairments.

“This was my first time meeting him in person and he lived up to every word of the glowing introduction that Professor [Marilyn] Pilkington gave him,” said Turner, who uses a computer software program that converts text into braille.

Lepofsky, who graduated from Osgoode with honours in 1979 and also holds a master of laws degree from Harvard University, has worked with the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General since 1982. For the last 16 years he has been with the Crown Law Office criminal unit. He was appointed general counsel in 2004, the highest professional recognition awarded to only a small percentage of Ontario crown counsels. He argues important criminal appeals and frequently appears in the Supreme Court of Canada.

He is also widely known for his volunteer work on behalf of people with disabilities, leading the campaign for new disability access legislation in Ontario to achieve a barrier-free Ontario for 1.9 million people with disabilities. Thanks to his efforts, and the efforts of a coalition of individuals with disabilities and more than 100 disability organizations, the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2001 and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005 were enacted.

In his talk to students, Lepofsky, who has received numerous awards and distinctions for his outstanding contributions to society, including the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario, told the audience that disability is an issue that touches everyone’s lives. "We all know someone who has a disability and no one can ever say for certain that they will never get a disability. We are the minority of everyone,” he said.

He said the battles he and others have fought for – including the human rights claim to get Toronto bus drivers to call out bus stops – are far from over and he urged the law students to get involved and make their voices heard. Lepofsky noted the importance of litigation in establishing rights, but emphasized that if we want to achieve a barrier-free society, we need to lobby for more effective legislation. “Real change will come through the enforcement of comprehensive and effective standards,” he said.