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In Memory of John Rae An Unmistakable Voice for Equality Has Gone Silent

April 9, 2022

By David Lepofsky CM, O. Ont Chair Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance Twitter: @davidlepofsky

On April 8, 2022, Canada's disability community and indeed, all of Canada, lost a strong, passionate, unwavering and utterly unmistakable voice for equality, accessibility, and full inclusion for people with disabilities. John Rae's sudden, unforeseen and untimely death, caught us all by wrenching and painful surprise. That is because we cannot imagine the trenches where we wage the battle for equality with disabilities, without the thundering blasts of John Rae's voice, launching salvo after salvo at the forces of the status quo, mired in the frustrating mud of intransigence. John was always infuriated by the barriers we face, and unrelenting in his desire to see them torn down. He was completely impatient with and intolerant of any claims by politicians or bureaucrats that we must accept progress, one baby step at a time.

John was not professionally trained in the art of oral argument. Yet his speeches, his deputations to official committees, his one-on-one encounters with senior officials in government, and his media interviews show that he needed no such training. His oral advocacy provided a role model from which we can all learn.

For my part, I always watch other advocates for a great turn of phrase, and happily borrow or steal it. Two years ago, John blasted electric scooters as a "silent menace", when deputing to Toronto's Infrastructure Committee. In any interview or news release for which I have been responsible since then on the e-scooters topic, you will always find that blistering term "silent menace". It crams so much persuasive power into two words. Whenever I say it, I think of John saying it. From now on, if you hear me say it, let us all think of John.

John made his contributions to our cause in two ways. Over the years, he served in leadership roles on so many organizations, from AEBC, to BOOST (its great-grandparent), CCD, and beyond. As well, as an individual, he raised his voice, pressed for action, either as a member of an organization, or simply as an individual. He showed that an individual who tries to make their voice heard can do so, on an important cause such as ours.

Both of us being blind, we could not make eye contact with each other, when meeting with some senior official. We rarely planned such meetings, though that violates just about every rule in the advocacy playbook. We could not scribble notes to each other, to coordinate our strategy. Yet in meeting after meeting, year after year, issue after issue, I left such meetings reflecting that we pulled it off as if we had co-written in advance a detailed script and plan of action. Our intuitions were in total sync.

After his passing, I have realized that to me, John was like a schoolyard chum. We could talk and talk and talk and talk, and have a great time. We could team up, and be more than the sum of our parts.

And yet we could argue, disagree, and angrily storm away from each other, fuming mad. When back together again, after the smoke cleared, we'd carry on as if nothing happened, and never discuss the conflict again.

Imagine an afterlife, with any disability barriers. You can rest assured that that afterlife would not be a quiet place for long!

It is especially sad that John leaves behind no biological family to make his memory endure. Those of us who labour in the disability advocacy trenches were and remain his family. Those trenches risk being distinctively quieter after John's passing. We cannot let that happen. Let's make the next battle an especially effective one, in memory of John.

Rest in peace, John Rae.


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