Dec. 4, 2023
New course examines how Canadian law and public policy impact lives of people with disabilities
The intersection of disability and law wasn’t part of Dr. Stephanie Chipeur’s career path. She completed her Master of Laws in family law at McGill University in 2014 and was planning doctoral studies in the same area. But the summer before starting her doctorate, Chipeur was in a car accident that broke her neck, paralyzing her and requiring her to use a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
"I took a year off to recover and rehabilitate, and when I went back to start my doctorate, I knew I couldn’t focus on family law anymore," explains Chipeur, DCL. "I was experiencing the world in a new way as a disabled person, through this different lens, but also with my lawyer lens, and I was experiencing many of the ways people with disabilities are excluded from society and the challenges we face trying to navigate a world made for able-bodied people."
Chipeur was appointed to the Azrieli Accelerator Professorship in Law & Disability Policy, a cross-appointment with the Faculty of Law and The School of Public Policy in 2023. As a new member of the disability community, she brings lived experience to her research on disability law and policy, including a new course at the law school, Disability and Law.
Students analyze legislation and previous cases to understand fight for inclusion
Canadians with disabilities have historically been segregated from public life, and their needs were considered a private matter for their families, religious organizations, and charities, explains Chipeur. The course examines how Canadian law and public policy impact the lives of people with disabilities, allowing students to analyze legislation and previous cases to understand how people with disabilities have sought inclusion in Canadian society and how federal and provincial governments and the courts, have responded to these efforts.
"One of the projects for the class is to get students to start thinking about law reform in tangible ways," says Chipeur. "For example, we’re looking at the law’s role in segregating the disability community from public space, such as the endorsement of a building that isn’t accessible by way of a building permit or restaurant license (like a recent case in Nova Scotia), and how we need to change the building code to address those systemic issues that endorse inequality."
Course benefits clinic work for student
For third-year student Brenna Findlay, the course has allowed her to think about legal issues from a different perspective and how the law dictates what issues people with disabilities could face daily.
"The law dictates how much money AISH participants will receive and what additional income they can collect, which determines what a person can do based on their income. The law states that new buildings must be accessible to wheelchair users, but older buildings don’t necessarily have these rules. This determines which buildings a person can enter," she explains.
What she’s learning in the course will also benefit her work with Student Legal Assistance, the law school’s legal aid clinic.
"Several of my files involve individuals with disabilities, so I can apply what I've learned immediately. It will also be useful in my future practice as my clients or opposing parties may have various disabilities."
Whether or not students go on to pursue a career in disability law, Chipeur hopes students learn to think critically about the way the law privileges able-bodiedness and to realize that "just because there are some things we call disability policy or law related to disabled people doesn’t mean that all law and all policy and everything in the legal system isn’t about disability too, because of course, people with disabilities are part of the public, they’re people too."
"Just being able to get students to think critically about disability will be a skill they can bring into any area of law they practise, and to analyze the way they’re supporting systems that privilege able-bodied people, to be allies for people with disabilities, and to be better lawyers to disabled clients."