Wednesday Sep 21, 2022

A Chat with Dr. Laverne Jacobs - Canada’s First Member of the UN’s Committee on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities

Dr. Laverne Jacobs is making Canada proud. Not only has she published one of the first books on disability law in Canada, but has recently been elected to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities. And...she has another book in the works!



Evan Kelly  0:05  
Thank you again for joining us on the Developmental Disabilities Association's encouraging abilities podcast. I am your host DDA communications manager Evan Kelly. Joining me today is Dr. Laverne Jacobs. Dr. Jacobs is a full professor at the University of Windsor Faculty of Law and a former assistant Associate Dean rather, she teaches researches rights all in the areas of disability rights law, administrative law, human rights laws She has published and presented both here in Canada and around the world. And now Dr. Jacobs has been in the news fairly recently, she was elected to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The committee monitors the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by countries that have ratified it. No UN CRPD committee members are independent experts like Dr. Jacobs selected from countries around the world. The special thing about this as Dr. Jacobs is the first ever Canadian elected to serve on this committee. And if that's not enough, Dr. Jacobs founded and directs the Law, Disability and social change project. It's a research and public advocacy center at the Windsor law that looks that works to foster and develop inclusive communities. So it's, so thank you very much for joining me today. Dr. J. Jacobs, it's really quite an honor to have you here.

Dr. Laverne Jacobs  1:27  
Thank you. Thank you for having me on the show. And it's a pleasure to be here.

Evan Kelly  1:31  
Now those accomplishments go on and on. When you hear that, you know, someone talked about that. How does that make you feel?

Dr. Laverne Jacobs  1:41  
Well, I think that as with most people, it can be a bit awkward to be placed in the spotlight. But I primarily feel very grateful to have had the opportunity and the experiences that I've had. I'm grateful and excited to be able to use those experiences to contribute to the the task of furthering the rights of persons with disabilities. And overall, ultimately, I think that it's not the number of experiences that you have, but the ways in which you use them to contribute to the community. That's important.

Evan Kelly  2:12  
Yes, absolutely. No. So what right straight to that to the UN committee? What does it mean to you to be not just elected to it, obviously, there's a very select handful of people, but to be the first Canadian on on this committee, how does that, what does that mean to you?

Dr. Laverne Jacobs  2:29  
Yeah, well, thank you for the question, placing everything just in a bit of context, I'd say, to start that my concern for disability rights is prompted by my academic and professional experience, as well as by my lived experience as a person with physical disabilities, I use a wheelchair. And I've seen significant and very positive turns in legal academia. One in particular, is that I've seen, people have begun to realize in a much more holistic way, the challenges faced by others. But I think it's not only in academia, but I've also seen this in the practice of law and in society more generally. And so the more that we accept the intersecting identities and growing knowledge, that the growing knowledge about individuals and their experiences, the more that we see that equality rights may look different for different people, because of their different lived experiences. So tying that back to what it means to be the first Canadian elected to the CRPD, I can say that it's a great honour to be part of a committee that works to define equality rights. And set international norm, but also to do that, at this very point in time when there's such a growing recognition of intersectionality. You know, as you've mentioned, we're independent experts. And so I don't represent views of Canada. But I think that coming from Canada and having been an academic here, where I've had the chance to reflect and analyze on various experiences of disability rights law, really gives me a backdrop that I can draw from, I mean, of course, as with any country, there's, you know, positive elements and negative elements. But we certainly have a unique tapestry that I can draw from. So yeah, so it's a, it's a great honor, I think to be the first Canadian elected.

Evan Kelly  4:28  
So how many how many countries have ratified this? How many involved?

Dr. Laverne Jacobs  4:35  
183 countries.

Evan Kelly  4:37  
And growing I hope.

Dr. Laverne Jacobs  4:39  
Yeah. Yeah. And growing. A very large number. Yeah.

Evan Kelly  4:45  
So can you tell me a little bit about your role within the committee?

Dr. Laverne Jacobs  4:50  
Yes, absolutely. So the committee does four main things, I've mentioned a couple of them already. Under the optional protocol is received complaints from individuals and groups, and it also receives inquiries. So requests to conduct inquiries into states, when there are allegations of serious and systemic violations of the convention, the CRPD also conducts regular reviews of countries. So countries file reports, first two years after the convention has come into force for that. And then every four years after that, so the CRPD committee conducts these constructive dialogue with the states parties about their report. And the reports really are kind of an overview of how the country is doing in terms of putting in place mechanisms, etc, to further the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Another major function of the CRPD committee is to provide general comments. And so these general comments serve as interpretive guidance for, for how to interpret the various articles of the convention. So there are eight general comments, you know, the most recent one actually just came out last week dealing with the rights to work and employment. But there are eight general comments in total right now. And they deal with topics such as inclusive education, women and girls with disabilities and other topics. And they really are important in terms of serving as, you know, guidance for states parties, when they are trying to determine, you know, the best way to understand what the convention actually is trying to get across. And I think the final thing is that the CRPD fulfills various other functions. So their statements and guidelines that are sometimes issues, just recently, again, this month, there was a set of guidelines issued relating to the institutionalization of persons with disabilities. And you know, I'm sure that DDA is aware of this. So these guidelines are created after several months of consultation. And the institutionalization, you know, is of huge importance to many. So yeah. So, sitting on the committee would mean, being involved in some way with these additional, these additional functions, such as the creation of guidelines, etc. So, as a member of the committee, I'd be involved in these broad areas, these four broad areas. And, yeah, I think I think that's about it. If I can just say, I think it's wonderful that you're asking this question, because I think that was such a new role. It's sometimes somewhat unclear as to what committee members do. You know, people sometimes think, people sometimes think that the role is one of advocacy before the CRPD Committee, which it's not so I've had people for example, reach out to me to, to see if I can, you know, represent them, which I can't. But yeah, these are some of the primary things that members of the committee do.

Evan Kelly  8:31  
Right, just just a great big overarching look at things. Law and disability your book law on disability in Canada was published in 2021. So when did you begin working on it?

Dr. Laverne Jacobs  8:43  
Thanks so much for the question. So yes, law and disability in Canada. It's the first Canadian textbook on disability in Canada, and it was published last year. And I think that in some ways, I started writing it when I first created my seminar in law and disability, which I teach at Windsor law, possibly even a bit before that, is I prepared for that, that first seminar. But I brought together five colleagues from across the country to put together this book. And we started writing in 2017. So it took four years to create the book. And this was primarily due to the original research that we collectively put into the book. There wasn't much written on some of the topics, not much written at all and some of the topic areas that we wanted to cover in terms of the interaction between people with disabilities and the law. Some of the topics that we cover include community living, social benefits, mental health and specialized courts, and the criminal law and justice system and persons with disabilities. We really wanted to create a book that would fill gaps in the law school curriculum, because not much is taught in law schools about persons with disabilities and their every day, you know engagements with the law. So we also wanted to, we wanted to fill these gaps. But we also wanted to foster respect for persons with disabilities in the law in the legal context, regardless of the area of the law. So those were some of our goals. And yeah, it took us four years to put together this first edition. 

Evan Kelly  10:21  
Now, is this now a book part of the law curriculum in many schools, or is this sort of with just with Windsor? Or is it a book that anybody can just pick up and read?

Dr. Laverne Jacobs  10:34  
Well, it's actually a book that anyone can pick up and read. But it's designed to be a textbook within the law school curriculum, we have had a considerable amount of take up already. So we're quite excited about that. And we also had invitations to speak about the book, you know, etc. So, the book, one final thing I can say is that the book is not only designed for the law school curriculum, it's also designed for people who teach in areas that are kind of adjacent to law. So people in human resources, people in areas like social work, Disability Studies, of course. And so there, there's quite a wide potential audience for the book.

Evan Kelly  11:23  
Now, you mentioned you working with five other authors, all legal experts in the field. So how do you define who gets to write about what and how do you, how do you sort of put that all together in a cohesive fashion?

Dr. Laverne Jacobs  11:34  
Yeah, it's a great question. We wrote primarily in our fields of interest. So this helped, helped us because these were areas in which we already had expertise. But it also helps the book to cut across the law school curriculum. So for example, I'm very interested in equality rights law and the interactions of individuals with government. And so this is an area of law that's known as administrative law. But what's unique about what I do, the work that I do is that I examine how questions of disability equality or disability inequality exists, and how they can be dealt with, in government itself. So it's really at the points where people with disabilities interact with the government, such as through security, securing disability benefit, workers, compensations, etc, that I focus on. So I focused on a chapter relating to equality and persons with disabilities, generally. So there's a chapter that, that looks at equality law, human rights, law, etc. and international law. But I also have a chapter that looks at Community Living, which was a particular interest of mine. So it traces the history of community living, examines key cases in Canada and internationally, and consider some topics related to living in the community and acquiring appropriate support, including during emergencies, such as COVID, which went on for, you know, quite a bit of time covered quite a bit of the period of time when we were writing. My colleagues similarly wrote on areas of expertise, because their areas of expertise, so that included criminal law, employment law, mental health and illness, women and girls with disabilities, etc.

Evan Kelly  13:37  
I really liked that community living is a bit of a focus for yourself, from a legal point of view, obviously, that's a huge one for us. We're we're all about that community living and you may not be aware, we just launched a documentary called Doing the Impossible. The story of the Developmental Disabilities Association. It's, it's really, really a great piece that, you know, I shouldn't be sitting here plugging our own thing, but here we go. But that's available on our website at And, you know, sort of goes from 1950 to or our founder sort of becomes the spark for community living here in British Columbia and beyond and deinstitutionalization. It's quite a quite a good story.

Dr. Laverne Jacobs  14:23  
Yeah, I just see, I just see information about it on the on the website. And I'm looking forward to having a chance to seeing the documentary in full. In the chapter that I wrote, and I was very surprised to find how little had been written about the law relating to community living. But in Canada, in the chapter that I wrote, I do use BC legislation actually as one of my examples.

Evan Kelly  14:51  
Fantastic. Moving on a bit now. You've been a lawyer for over 20 years. Since you started are disability rights better, are they are we more inclusive, is there anything that's concerning right now that needs to be addressed in your mind?

Dr. Laverne Jacobs  15:03  
Well I think that, yes, I mean, yes to both. I mean, I think that there have been positive advances. But I think that there are also challenges that we need to address. So what Canada, I think has done well, is that it's had legislation in place for quite some time. So historically, we see legislation relating to the equality rights of persons with disabilities being enacted, you know, from the 1960s onward. So, things like the Human Rights Code coming into place in 1962, or the Ontario blind persons Rights Act, coming into place in 1970. The Human Rights Code, sorry, I was referring to was Ontario, but we see kind of an early recognition of disability. At the same time, I think that even if historically, we've had this legislation, a lot of legislation has come through the work of advocates. So lawyers, pushing for lawyers and others, not always lawyers that are members of the community pushing to have disability added, for example, as a prohibited ground under the charter or sometimes in legislation itself, the creation of accessibility legislation, etc. So I think that in terms of what we've seen, go well, you know, I think we kind of have a long history a kind of a long foundation. But I think that in terms of improvement, there are, you know, a myriad of concerns that have been highlighted by COVID-19. And that really needs to be addressed. And I think that we need to not always have to rely on advocates right? So I think it would be good if governments were a bit more proactive. Yeah. And moving these issues forward. So, um, so yeah, I guess in my 20 years as a lawyer, and as a law professor, I would say that there are still issues that need to be addressed, and that perhaps the process could be improved as well.

Evan Kelly  17:23  
They make an interesting point about, I'm not sure, people would necessarily understand what you mean, by saying, we don't have to just rely on advocates. It's sort of, do you mean, we sort of you need to get to the issues before they happen, in a sense?

Dr. Laverne Jacobs  17:40  
Well, yeah, I mean, that we should be creating pathways. And I'm not saying that they're not there, they just could be stronger. So creating pathways so that it's easier to recognize what these issues are. So if you take accessibility legislation, as an example, the whole idea there is to have kind of a proactive way of knocking down barriers, even before they become barriers, you know. And so I think that that's a start. But that type of approach, which is more proactive, could be implemented in other areas as well. So for example, I think one of the kinds of substantive issues that we're seeing a lot, you know, we're having a lot of challenges within the disability community deal with poverty, right. So, you know, the impact of poverty on people with disabilities, and people from intersectional backgrounds, so women with disabilities, people of color with disabilities, and I can, as an academic, I've seen that it's, you know, quite clear that the impact of poverty has led to, you know, all kinds of negative implications for people with disabilities. So, we need to have avenues where those types of issues are addressed. Before, you know, the worst happens. And instead, we've seen, I think, quite a few instances where people are being forced to choose ways to, you know, support themselves or in their lives, etc. Because there isn't that kind of support or avenue for change readily available.

Evan Kelly  19:24  
So we almost need to, you know, I've been using the word universality more than then accessibility or even inclusion or because accessibility in a lot of ways. To me says we've designed something, oh, but now we have to go back and redesign it because now we have to make it accessible. But if we approach laws, if we approach anything in terms of design, or, you know, human rights, what have you from a universal perspective, maybe that's just a better way to go.

Dr. Laverne Jacobs  19:58  
Yeah, I agree. I agree with that. Yeah.

Evan Kelly  20:02  
So can you tell us about law disability and social change project?

Dr. Laverne Jacobs  20:07  
Yeah, absolutely. So the law disability and social change project is a research and public advocacy center at University of Windsor Faculty of Law. We work to foster more inclusive communities. So kind of building on what you've just mentioned, our goal is really to make sure that communities are not just, you know, accessible, they don't have space for people with disabilities, but that they actually are, you know, open and welcoming and understand different ways of being. So that's one of, that's what our primary goal is, we have three main pillars, we conduct research, and I would say that's probably our our major pillar. So we conduct research into various topics relating to law on disability. So disability discrimination, generally, we've looked at transportation and equality. We've looked at other areas as well, communities, marginalized communities and disability benefits. Our second area is public engagement. So mainly education, and I can give you an example. We get into the community we, we have held information seminars in the local rehabilitation hospital, for example, online disability topics. And public advocacy is our third pillar. So you know, that's just kind of sharing that education, kind of knowledge. We can be with other other NGO groups, or it can be on our own. So those are the main things that that we do.

Evan Kelly  21:56  
Now, in terms of education, obviously, you're a lot of your audience, are university students in law, do you target any high schools or anything like that, where some of this information?

Dr. Laverne Jacobs  22:09  
It's no, actually high school, that is a no but high school. They're not on our list. But I was, what we do is, we reach out to people beyond University as well. So you know, we have been involved and invited to conduct workshops, for example, on some of the topics in the textbook. So the loss ability and social change project, while it incorporates students and students are involved, the students, researchers, they are not necessarily the end users. In fact, you know, some of the work that we've done has been, you know, research commissioned by government, for example, where I'll be the principal researcher, and the students will assist. So, so yes, we do reach out, but we reach out more broadly to community than just university students.

Evan Kelly  23:07  
Gotcha. So what are some of the more recent projects from the project?

Dr. Laverne Jacobs  23:14  
Well, we contributed to the development of the accessible Canada Act. And so that was done at the time when the statute was being created. A recent study from this year dealt with the Social Security tribunal where we examined the experiences of individuals who were seeking to appeal their denial of CPP benefits. So Canada Pension Plan disability benefits. And we looked more particularly at a navigator system that has been set up by the Tribunal to see you know, whether it was working well and how it could, how it could benefit more effectively people with disabilities and from other marginalized communities. Other things that we've been involved with, we regularly provide summaries of key Human Rights Tribunal decisions dealing with disability. In 2021, last year, we created an annotated accessible Canada Act, which is a free resource available on our website. We've also created, there are a number of things. But one last one I'll mention is we during COVID-19, we created a database of you know, news stories, news articles dealing with COVID, and persons with disabilities, that that was really the principal way to get information at the time, there were no cases etc. And that's also available through our website. So we are involved in a number of different types of projects. 

Evan Kelly  24:48  
Now, you mentioned you're an author, of course, that you mentioned to me a little while ago about another book you're writing. Can you tell me about that?

Dr. Laverne Jacobs  24:58  
Sure. Absolutely. I'm currently in the process of writing a book called law and the right of access from litigation to citizen participation. And what it is, is a book that looks at accessibility legislation and its growth. So the move away from kind of human rights adjudicative approaches to approaches that are designed to be more proactive in removing barriers for people with disabilities. In this book, I look at this development, both historically and comparatively. So I look at other countries as well. But I also try to look at and focus on the interaction between people with disabilities, and the government. So there's a lot of consultation in these types of these types of processes for developing accessibility standards. And so I focus on on the ways in which people with disabilities are engaged and the challenges that they face.

Evan Kelly  26:14  
When do you expect to be finished that one?

Dr. Laverne Jacobs  26:17  
Well, that book should be out in late 2023 or early 2024. 

Evan Kelly  26:24  
So another solid year work for you then. Are you and any of your cohorts involved in sort of looking at the new proposed disability benefit that the Canadian government is putting together?

Dr. Laverne Jacobs  26:36  
Oh, that's a good question. So we have not been asked to do any background research but as an academic, I am involved in, you know, conference an academic conference, we'll be discussing the issue. But in terms of, you know, research for this actual the creation of the legislation, no, we haven't been involved in that.

Evan Kelly  27:05  
How can organizations like DDA better serve the needs of our community?

Dr. Laverne Jacobs  27:09  
Well, I think the best thing that can be done by any organization is to keep in touch with members of the disability community that you, that you serve, and to ensure that you can support those in the community to share their concerns, you know, through the avenues where they need to go. So I believe that listening and effective and sometimes innovative ways of supporting is, is absolutely key.

Evan Kelly  27:35  
Okay, well, thanks for tuning in. Our guest today has been Dr. Laverne Jacobs. Dr. Jacobs is a professor at the University of Windsor, Windsor teaching, disability rights law, administrative law, and of course, the first Canadian in history to join the UN's Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Really honored to have you on the show today and thanks for joining us.

Dr. Laverne Jacobs  27:58  
Thank you, Evan.


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