Virtual ceremony honours Seaforth's O'Reilly with Onley Award
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Last week, Seaforth’s Charlene O’Reilly was one of three people honoured with 2021 David C. Onley Awards for Leadership in Accessibility for her work to make the International Plowing Match, held in Walton in 2017, accessible for all.
O’Reilly was celebrated through a Zoom meeting that included addresses from Onley, the former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, the current Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Minister of Seniors and Accessibility Raymond Cho, Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries Lisa MacLeod and others.
O’Reilly shared the honours with two others. O’Reilly claimed the award in the Employee Engagement category, while Ian Parker of Toronto claimed the award in the Role Model category and PrincessNikita Layne-Austin, also of Toronto, was recognized in the Youth Leadership category.
“Charlene O’Reilly was recognized for her unwavering leadership and passionate volunteerism promoting accessibility at the 100th International Plowing Match and Rural Expo in Walton, Ontario,” reads the provincial government’s website. “Charlene’s tireless work as the first-ever Chair of Accessibility for the event ensured the event was as accessible as possible to individuals of all ages and abilities. She led a large team of volunteers to ensure that the entirety of the event - which included a more-than 100-acre farm, a huge exhibitors’ space and an over-1,300-site recreational vehicle park - was accessible to any visitor with a physical, mental, sensory, intellectual or learning limitation.
“Not only did Charlene do all this while providing amazing care for her family and son with special needs, but she also did it while living with her own Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis.”
In an interview with The Citizen, O’Reilly said it was “surreal” to be honoured in such a way, interacting with the other winners, Onley and others, all of whom she looks up to for their contributions to accessibility in the province.
She also said she found it interesting that the ceremony and reception were held online. What the COVID-19 pandemic has shown so many, she said, is that meeting and working online can make life easier for many, and that includes those with accessibility concerns. Working and meeting from home, she says, has opened doors for many people, and they discussed that during the reception.
The awards were established in 2014 by the provincial government to recognize the outstanding work of individuals and organizations that have demonstrated leadership and gone above and beyond to champion accessibility and improve the quality of life for people with disabilities.
“The recipients of the David C. Onley Award reflect the strength and resilience many of us have come to value more than ever in these challenging times,” said Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, in a press release issued by the provincial government. “I am delighted to congratulate them on their hard work, innovation and promotion of inclusion that is vital to a strong and successful province. May their examples inspire Ontarians to continue to work together for a future that works for everyone.”
Onley himself also weighed in by way of the press release, saying he was delighted to congratulate the winners.
“Given our challenging times, the leaders we’ve recognized today are to be especially applauded for their ongoing diligence in helping to make accessibility a way of life throughout Ontario. They are doing their part to help us build an inclusive province filled with social and economic opportunities for people of all abilities.”
O’Reilly said that, interestingly enough, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the challenges experienced by those with accessibility needs to the forefront, especially when it comes to bathroom access. She said that limited access to public bathrooms and other facilities during the pandemic has shown everyone what events can feel like when the planning process doesn’t take accessibility into account.
“I am proud to recognize the latest recipients of the David C. Onley Award,” said Minister for Seniors and Accessibility Raymond Cho in the provincial government’s press release. “Their determination to champion accessibility is unwavering, and their efforts have changed lives in meaningful and positive ways. They are shining role models for all Ontarians, and we applaud their important contributions.”
In response to an e-mail from The Citizen, Cho said O’Reilly and her fellow winners have all worked hard to champion accessibility.
“All the Onley Awards recipients have gone above and beyond to improve accessibility for people with disabilities. As the first-ever Chair for Accessibility for the 100th International Plowing Match (IPM) and Rural Expo in Walton, Charlene set a new standard for IPMs by ensuring this event was accessible for all Ontarians,” Cho said. “It is so inspiring to see someone choose to take on this responsibility. The fact that she did so while diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and still providing amazing care for her family and son with special needs is truly worth celebrating. Ontarians like Charlene, and the other recipients, play an important role in making our province a leader as we improve accessibility for people with disabilities.”