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Quadriplegic lawyer fights for disabled rights By Jennifer Keiller

Before he can begin his day, lawyer Peter MacGrath must use a small stick in his mouth to dial for someone to come help him eat, dress and get out of bed. MacGrath, 50, is a quadriplegic. He has no movement in his legs and his right arm, and limited movement in his left hand, but is able to maneuver a stick in his mouth to perform some daily tasks. He graduated in 2002 with a law degree from University of Ottawa. Although he had long since been fighting for disabled rights, MacGrath decided to become a lawyer to advocate within the legal system. I realized you needed to have stronger skills as well as a knowledge of law of Canada if you are going to play a role [in advocating], he said. He currently works on litigation for disability employment issues for Canada Pension Plan. MacGrath was 15 when he was running along a wharf in his hometown of Arnprior, Ontario. He was preparing to dive into the water, when he slipped and fell into the shallow end. He broke his neck in the fall. Had I not been injured, I suspect I would have been a very different type of lawyer, he said. Instead, his accident opened his eyes to the struggles of not just people with physical disabilities, but also other minorities. He realized that all minorities need to have their rights spoken up for.

Discrimination is discrimination in any form, and it is offensive, he said. Still, for MacGrath, one of the biggest challenges he faces is not his own physical limitations, but rather judgements from others in the legal field. Working in [the justice system] you work with a lot of very intelligent people, he said. And smart people become very adept at hiding their prejudices, which makes it difficult to detect their bigotry. MacGrath said that most able-bodied lawyers are assumed to be competent until they prove otherwise, but for him, it is quite the opposite. People always assume that I cant, so I have this requirement to prove that I can, he said. He described having to constantly work to gain the approval of his colleagues. However, once he works with a new group of people, he has to begin that process over again. Its slow, its fatiguing, he said. From a life standpoint, it really wears you down. One of MacGraths phyiscal care attendants, Samantha Bergeron said she admires his determination and his refusal to let the prejudices of others stand in his way. I think that it is no small feat that he has been able to accomplish all that he has given the obstacles hes been presented with, said Bergeron. While there are other disabled people working as lawyers, MacGrath said that they are few and far between. In recent years, the Law Society of Upper Canada has taken initiatives to increase the number of disabled people attending law school and working in the legal field. For now, MacGrath has one message for anyone with misconceptions about a person with a disability working in the legal field. Open up your heart and open up your mind, and your life will be a lot easier, he said.

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