The high price of being a trailblazer

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Thu Jun 09 2011.    By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

How much would you be willing to sacrifice for your principles? For Jasmin Simpson, the answer is $71,000 — and counting.

Simpson has been deaf and legally blind since her birth in Korea 36 years ago. She also has lupus, a disease which causes the body’s immune system to attack healthy cells and tissues, including the skins, joints kidneys, hearts, lungs, blood vessels and brain.

Despite her disabilities, she was determined to go to university and get a job helping other people like herself. Growing up in a “family” with 32 siblings — most of them, like herself, adopted Asian children with severe disabilities — she knew she would have to rely on student loans. But she didn’t expect to graduate with a debt 60 per cent higher than the amount incurred by a nondisabled student with the same degrees (a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in social work.)

She attended Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., the only liberal arts university in the world designed exclusively for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. It charges international students $21,700 (U.S.) a year in tuition and $9,860 (U.S.) a year in room and board. Simpson’s student loans were provided by the federal government and her living costs were covered by the Ontario Disability Support Program.

Because of her disabilities — which forced her to suspend her studies when her lupus flared up and reduce her course load — it took Simpson eight years, rather than the usual the usual five, to earn her MSW. Each year meant more student debt.

Her first brush with the government came in 2004. She needed a lawyer — David Baker who specializes in disability law — to get the Department of Human Resources and Social Development (HRSDC) to reinstate her student loans after she’d withdrawn from university temporarily for medical reasons.

But her real battle came later, as she realized more was at stake than one costly interruption in her education. Thousands of students with disabilities have to miss classes, drop courses and extend their years of university, taking on more debt than their nondisabled peers.

In 2007, she launched a constitutional challenge, alleging that the Canada Student Loan Program violates the equality clause in the Charter of Rights.

Initially, the government was eager to set things right. It offered to forgive her entire student loan — not just the 60 per cent she considered discriminatory — and amend the provisions of the student loan program.

Tempting as the money was, Simpson was wary about signing away her right to go to court. So she instructed Baker to seek a conditional agreement. She would await the government’s revisions. If they met her concerns, she would terminate her lawsuit. If not, she would pursue her Charter challenge.

Her heart sank when she saw Ottawa’s proposals. They offered additional support to students with mild disabilities but no assistance to severely disabled students like her. She instructed Baker to send back Ottawa’s money, which HRSDC had entrusted to him for safekeeping.

Federal lawyers, counting on a quick, quiet settlement, were surprised. They made a new offer: The government would erase Simpson’s entire student debt plus interest and cover her legal fees (approximately $71,000). She still said no.

They tried once more, offering a mediated settlement and hinting more funds were available. Again, she refused.

She and Baker proceeded on the assumption that the case was going to court.

But on Dec. 23, 2010, a letter arrived from Ottawa. The department (HRSDC) “now takes the position that the matter is settled.” It followed up with a motion to the Ontario Superior Court to stop Simpson’s case.

The case began Thursday. Close to 30 members of the deaf community showed up. After a long, testy afternoon, the judge told the two parties to come back on Sept. 16 and complete their arguments.

Simpson can’t afford to keep fighting. Her student debt is now up to $52,700 and her legal fees are mounting. She earns a modest salary as a counsellor at the Canadian Hearing Society

But she refuses to buckle. This is no longer about her. It’s about all the young people with disabilities who are counting on her to be their trailblazer.

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