London professor and friend reflects on late Lieutenant Governor's legacy as a voice for the disabled

David Onley was a champion of disability rights both during and after his seven years as Ontario's 28th lieutenant-governor. He used a mobility scooter for the majority of his life, after having contracted polio as a child.

Jeff Preston was both a friend, and student of David Onley

A man is seen looking at the camera for a headshot.
Former Ontario Lieutenant Governor David Onley's death was announced Jan. 14, 2023 by Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell. He was 72 years old. (Maayan Ziv, provided by Lieutenant Governor of Ontario's office)

On the day of his funeral, disability advocates across the province recounted Ontario's former lieutenant-governor's positive impact in using his platform to further visibility and rights for people with disabilities.

David Onley died on Jan. 14, at the age of 72. He was laid to rest on Monday morning.

"I will never forget the first time I met him. I was just a little boy, and here was this guy who uses a scooter, not dissimilar from me," said Jeff Preston, a professor of disability studies at King's University College in London, Ont.

Onley was a champion of disability rights during and after his seven years as Ontario's 28th lieutenant-governor. He used a mobility scooter for most of his life after having contracted polio as a child. Before his days as lieutenant-governor, he was known to those in the Greater Toronto Area as a journalist at CityTV, where he insisted on having his mobility devices visible at all times.

LISTEN: Jeff Preston talks about David Onley on CBC Afternoon Drive:

Ontario lieutenant-governor David Onley was laid to rest today, Onley was life-long advocate for people with disabilities in Ontario. Afternoon Drive Host Allison Devereaux spoke to disability advocate Jeff Preston about Onley's legacy and how much more needs to be done for those living with a disability.

In political arenas, he could be seen as a shining example for disabled Ontarians as proof that physical disabilities were surmountable. He also served as a strong voice advocating that the province had a long way to go in terms of making room for people living with disabilities in both government and in general, said Preston, who knew Onley personally as a friend.

"I'm one of many people that David took under his wing and offered advice, support, and connections to," said Preston, who added he was among a long, ever-growing list of friends and contacts Onley knew throughout the province.

man with glasses in floral shirt
Jeff Preston tells CBC News David Onley was a mentor and friend of his. (Stephen Grimes, London Canada)

Through his work, Onley built a robust network of disability advocates and educators, and people living with disabilities, who Preston believes will act as torchbearers to keep the flame of what Onley fought for burning.

"I'm hoping that in his final moments, he was able to take comfort in the fact that he was directly responsible for training countless replacements," said Preston.

Moving forward, Preston hopes that the people carrying Onley's cause with them will continue the work he advocated for and push for further change in the province.

In 2005, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act promised that by 2025, Ontario would be made fully accessible for those living with disabilities.

In 2019, a report penned by Onley claimed the 2025 goal was far off, and last year, Onley said little had been done since his report to move closer to the goal.

Areas of particular concern that need attention include the expansion of Ontario's accessibility standards, which regulate accessibility for different sectors of the economy, above the current count of five sectors. Additionally, Preston hopes legislation can be amended to include compliance measures for failing to enforce the Ontarians with Disabilities Act.

Though, in pushing for further advocacy and momentum to be carried forward, Preston also remembered his friend and mentor as someone who accomplished larger-than-life goals over his lifetime.

"He was a real champion for bringing his perspective to light in a way that others were never able to do," said Preston.


Alessio Donnini


Alessio is a Sarnia-born, London-raised multimedia journalist. Graduating from Fanshawe College's Broadcast Journalism program, he's worked in markets from Toronto to Windsor, and has a love for all things news. Alessio can be heard on weekday afternoons reading the news for Afternoon Drive. In his free time, he can be found enjoying a good book, watching a documentary, or learning to cook a new recipe.