The Carleton University community remembers David C. Onley as a passionate disability rights advocate and accessibility champion who worked tirelessly to raise awareness of unemployment and underemployment of persons with disabilities, as well as lead accessibility and inclusion initiatives in Ontario, and at Carleton.

David Charles Onley, former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, passed away on January 14, 2023. Onley was a Canadian journalist and broadcaster and served as the 28th Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 2007 to 2014.

He was also the patron of numerous organizations, including the Rick Hansen Foundation, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and Carleton’s own Accessibility Institute (formerly the READ Initiative).

Honorary Degree

Onley first became involved in the Carleton community in November 2011, where he joined the fall graduating class of 2011 and was awarded an honorary degree.

Onley received the degree of Doctor of Laws Honoris Causa in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the advancement of disability issues as well as his social justice, humanitarian, and charitable work for, and with, people with disabilities.

Watch David Onley’s remarks after receiving his honorary degree at Carleton University:

Launch of the READ Initiative

Following the convocation ceremony, Onley encountered Dean Mellway and Larry McCloskey from the Paul Menton Centre for Students with Disabilities and was introduced to the idea of creating a department at Carleton that would be dedicated to exploring how accessibility could be advanced through research, education, and design.

“In November 2011, while serving as Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, I was invited to receive an Honorary Degree at Carleton. At a dinner following the ceremony, I was introduced to Larry [McCloskey] and Dean [Mellway] and we became fast friends. Their combined enthusiasm for accessibility was palpable. While describing their vision for an accessibility institute at Carleton, I immediately replied, “should you succeed in creating READ and if you are looking for a Patron, you know where to find me,” a quote from remarks Onley provided for the READ Initiative’s 10-year anniversary reception.

These early conversations and strong support from key stakeholders, like Onley, led to the development of Carleton’s Research, Education, Accessibility, and Design Initiative, more commonly known as the READ Initiative.

In June 2012, Mr. Onley returned to Carleton to unveil the ‘Sailing Through Time’ statue in the lobby of Richcraft Hall and formally announce the creation of the READ Initiative, under the leadership of Dean Mellway as its founding Director.

Lieutenant Governor David Onley, left, with sculptor David Fels posing in front of Fels' "Sailing Through Time" sculpture, a large curved, abstract shaped wooden sculpture.

Lieutenant Governor David Onley, left, with sculptor David Fels at the unveiling of “Sailing Through Time.” (2012)

“He was involved with READ from the very beginning and had been a strong friend and partner ever since,” said Dean Mellway, who is now Accessibility Advisor to Facilities, Management and Planning and the Accessibility Institute.

The READ Initiative quickly became a hub for accessibility research, development, training, and community engagement.

On October 27, 2022, the READ Initiative celebrated its 10-year anniversary as a department at Carleton. President Benoit-Antoine Bacon attended the celebratory reception to announce the READ Initiative was being renamed to the Accessibility Institute in recognition of the department’s achievements, growth, impact, and potential to be a leading organization in the emerging field of accessibility.

Although Onley wasn’t available to attend the reception due to illness, he sent the following remarks, which were shared during the event:

“It has been my pleasure to continue serving in as patron of READ, even after leaving the office of Lieutenant Governor and to be the namesake for READ’s premier accessible employment research project, the David C. Onley Initiative for Employment and Enterprise Development. I am happy to offer my congratulations to Carleton and to the team at READ, on this 10-year anniversary.”

David C. Onley Initiative Project

Over the years, Onley remained a close contact of the READ Initiative and of the University, inviting Carleton to engage in various accessibility projects, including efforts to raise funds to update the Sir John Golding Rehabilitation Centre in Jamaica in 2013.

In 2018, Carleton launched the David C. Onley Initiative (DCOI) for Employment and Enterprise Development, a research project led by the Accessibility Institute (then the READ Initiative). The project was a much-needed undertaking to research and understand what factors contribute to the development of employability for college and university students with disabilities.

“His reputation from his seven-year period as Lieutenant Governor speaks for itself. He was the first person to ever have a visible disability in that role and was also the first to highlight accessibility issues as part of the work of that role,” said Mellway.

“David was also champion for the issue of employment for people with disabilities, so we asked him to be the namesake of the project. It was a natural fit for us, and him, and he was happy to do it.”

Onley attended the project’s launch event as the keynote speaker in August 2018 and took an active role in providing contributions and insight as the project progressed. The first phase of the DCOI Project concluded in April 2020.

To continue the momentum generated in the first leg of the project, Carleton University and the Government of Ontario partnered again to launch a second phase of the DCOI Project in December 2021. In this second phase, the Accessibility Institute is working closely with post-secondary institutions across Ontario to implement and test the success of a suite of strategies designed to improve employability and employment outcomes for students with disabilities.

Carleton will continue to honour Onley’s legacy through the ongoing accessibility education, services, and awareness initiatives led by the Accessibility Institute and the Paul Menton Centre for Students with Disabilities.

Onley’s funeral will be held Monday, January 30, 2023, in Toronto.

The funeral service will be livestreamed on the Government of Ontario YouTube channel with closed captioning and ASL interpretation.

Those wishing to share condolences can sign Mr. Onley’s memorial page.