Paul Norman Menton, BAHons/82, inspired a centre of support and growth for students with disabilities. His short life left a mark on many, though few know much about the man whose influence is felt widely on campus. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Paul Menton Centre. We look at the centre’s early days, its future and the accessibility program that continues to build on what one person started all those years ago.
Paul Menton, February 4, 1953 – May 18, 1989
By all accounts, Paul Menton was charming and gregarious. Pragmatic, with a steely focus, he was also sincere, kind and engaging. Possessed of magnetic blue eyes and warm wit, he made friends easily.
After Paul Menton’s death in 1989, his father, Joseph Menton, remarked that Paul, a quadriplegic, had tremendous personality. “He told me not long ago that only once in 15 years did anyone refuse his request for bathroom help.”
“I remember Paul often saying how wonderful people are,” says his brother Jerome. “In all of his adventures in a wheelchair, whenever he asked for assistance, people always gave him a hand.”
Paul Menton faced many physical hurdles in his 36 years. He worked through extraordinary challenges in order to graduate with his honours degree in sociology in 1982 while also advocating for changes to policies for the disabled that are still in effect today. His trailblazing started a path to accessibility that continues to evolve at the Paul Menton Centre for Students with Disabilities at Carleton. The centre will celebrate its silver anniversary this year with a ceremony in the fall. Ahead of that milestone, we look at the life of the alumnus who inspired change.
Paul Norman Menton was born at Ottawa Civic Hospital on February 4, 1953, the second of four children to Phyllis, a teacher, and Joseph Menton, an aircrew communications officer then stationed at Rockcliffe Air Base who flew around the world on the RCAF de Havilland DH 106 Comet, the world’s first pure jet-air transport aircraft.
As is often the case with military families, the Mentons moved frequently, setting up home in Clinton, Ont.; Winnipeg, Man.; Marville, France; and Lahr, Germany, where Paul, at the age of 14, along with his big brother Don, worked overnight as a disc jockey at the CFB radio station. Two years later, during the summer of 1969, the family returned to Ottawa, where Paul started Grade 11 at Merivale High School. After class, Paul spent time in the driveway of the family’s Nepean home helping his buddies fix cars.
Paul was raised in a Catholic home and attended church every Sunday, where he listened closely to the sermons, recalls Debbie (Adams) Davey, who dated Menton when they were in high school. “He liked long walks and good music and was popular,” she remembers. Paul worked as a roadie for a group called Toby Foss but always made it home for family dinner.
On weekends, the family would retire to the basement rec room to catch up, unwind or celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. On one such occasion in 1971, the family gathered after what had been a rough few weeks. Joseph Menton had suffered a heart attack and was still in hospital. The family had been commuting back and forth to Smiths Falls to tend to him. While sitting on the couch watching television that evening, Paul felt a paralysis spreading through his shoulder and down his arm. No one understood what was happening. He had been at a party the night before, and someone wondered if there had been drugs in the drinks. It was unusual to see a healthy young man in such a condition—one that was quickly worsening. Paul had had a stroke. He was just 18 years old.
Paul spent the next three months in the hospital, coming home just before Christmas. The doctors were confounded by what had happened. Shortly after returning to school in the new year, he had another stroke. Tests showed vascular and arterial abnormalities in his brain stem and upper spine. Paul’s arteries were woven like spaghetti strands in and out and all around his spinal cord. This branching allowed too much blood to flow into Paul’s brain, causing vessels throughout the brain to burst from the excess pressure.
Doctors operated and put in two clamps, one on each of the main arteries entering his head. When Paul had recovered sufficiently, the clamps were partially closed while medical staff assessed his nerve reactions to ensure that blood was still passing into his brain. There was another vertebral abnormality in his neck, and doctors changed the pressure of blood flowing through the region, allowing Paul to resume normal activities after months of rehabilitation. That summer, Paul worked as a driver at Camp Merrywood, an Easter Seals camp for kids just outside Smiths Falls, and began studying drafting at Algonquin College.
Two years later, in May 1974, vessels in Paul’s upper spinal column burst. The branching, which had previously allowed too much blood to flow into Paul’s brain and was resolved with embedded clamps, put too much pressure on his spinal column. He was back in the emergency room, under the care of many of the same staff members who had tended to him after his stroke two years earlier.
“He really didn’t know what was ahead of him,” Davey says. Paul spent eight months in hospital on a respirator. At one point, his family was told to make funeral plans. But they did not, and after four months, things started to look up. After being in the ICU, Paul was transferred to another floor. He was breathing on his own using only his diaphragm, since his thoracic muscles were no longer responsive, and he was slowly adapting to life in a wheelchair.
Later, Don asked Paul why he had struggled all those months to survive. “He answered that whenever he regained consciousness, he would see our parents at his side crying. It was just too easy to lie back on the pillow and let go, leaving behind those who loved him.”
Back at home on David Drive in Nepean, Joseph had built a ramp to the front door for Paul’s return. Paul loved being at home and insisted on keeping the same family routines of going to the cottage, to the movies, out with friends and to summer concerts in the park.
“I was very proud of the determination Paul showed,” Davey says. “Paul wasn’t ashamed and greatly embraced any assistance that was given.”
His heart and mind had not changed, but 90 percent of his body no longer functioned as it should. Extra help was needed to make the adjustment back to daily life. The family’s first nurse, Cleone MacDougall, took over the house, helping Phyllis and Joseph get out of the door in the morning and coordinating the family’s tasks for the day.
“She took care of me and sent me to school,” Jerome says. “Then she would take care of Paul all day. She taught me everything I know about taking care of a quadriplegic.”
Jerome started power lifting after high school classes. “I was 185 pounds and lifted 200 over my head.” That meant it was easy for him to lift Paul. Jerome would take him out of bed, on and off the toilet, in and out of cars, and on and off the couch. “I got to spend so much time with my best friend,” he says. “We would say ‘Touchdown’ as I lay him into bed.”
In the summer of 1976, Paul and his brothers took a trip out to the west coast. Don was to attend a conference in Calgary and planned to hitchhike. Paul responded to a hollow invitation to go along, and the trio travelled in an old Ford van recently purchased from a farmer who had used it to carry hay to cattle in a pasture. The trip took about six weeks, with stops to see friends all over the country. “We used motels occasionally to give Paul a bath,” Don recalls, “but we usually slept in the van at campgrounds or along the shoulders of the highway or side streets.” Meals were mostly salami and bread washed down with beer. The van never travelled again and was eventually sold for scrap. At the end of it all, Paul remarked that the trip, for him, was like crossing a watershed. It convinced him he could do something more with his life.
“Paul would have all these barriers, but that really gave him the sense that within his capacity, he could change things to make life better for everyone, handicapped or not.” That’s how John Kiedrowski, BAHons/81, remembers remembers him. The two met in stats class, and Kiedrowski became a close family friend.
Life could be tough, but Paul wasn’t bitter. “That sense wasn’t even in the room with him,” Kiedrowski recalls. “Paul would get philosophical at times, and when he did, you would listen. There were places where his mind could go that he could not go physically.”
It was hard to get started at university with such a fierce disability, but Paul would not give up. When he started classes at Carleton in the fall of 1975, it was a massive effort to get out of the house and onto campus. There were few ramps at the time, and sometimes the batteries in his electric wheelchair wouldn’t last through the day or his wheelchair would get stuck in the snow. He also needed help getting books from upper shelves and help emptying the urinal bag strapped to his left leg—all challenges that he took in stride. Once he was in class, it was not a given that Paul would finish the course. Respiratory or bladder infections would force him back into hospital for long periods at a time, but once he was better, he would restart his classes. He graduated with a BA in 1980 and completed his honours BA in sociology in 1982. Many milestones followed. Paul became Carleton’s first coordinator for the disabled and later worked for the RCMP and the Canadian Human Rights Commission. There, he worked on the disability file. “Every week we compared notes on the complexity of our respective positions,” says Larry McCloskey, BAHons/78, MA/81, MSW/83, who took over Paul’s position as coordinator for the disabled and has been instrumental in the development of the Paul Menton Centre over its 25-year existence. Now director of the centre, McCloskey says, “There have been many days over many years now when I wished I had Paul to bounce ideas off of or solve an unsolvable problem.”
Paul’s sister, Margaret Manery, remembers Paul as being resourceful and a deep thinker. “When first faced with locked-in syndrome in 1971, paralyzed, unable to speak and connected to breathing tubes and IVs, he said the question that dominated his mind was how to get a wheelchair over a square curb. His determination to overcome obstacles drove him to live life to the fullest, and Carleton University opened doors for him that he never imagined possible.”
Upon earning his honours degree, Paul was offered a research contract by Mary O’Brien, a physician with a vision for providing attendant care on campus. She helped Paul apply for funding to enable him to advise the university on how to make the campus more accessible to people with disabilities. Paul was delighted to be armed with a ruler and head out to measure where curb cuts should be placed on campus. “Paul’s experience as a disabled man was at a time when there was a whole new awareness of special needs in the community,” Margaret says.
That was the role that defined him.
“When he started working at what would become the Paul Menton Centre, that is where he felt at his best,” Kiedrowski recalls. “Paul was bright, articulate, and knew what needed to be done. It was perfect for him.”
McCloskey says Paul had a certain charm that was appealing. “He would ask penetrating questions about what you were interested in and what was bugging you and all in a way that most people don’t get. I think when you have severe pain and discomfort, as well as unrelenting challenges just to get through a day, it’s very hard to be outward-looking, but it was just what was bred in the bone for him. That was who he was.”
He would even pick up the slack for his siblings. While Paul did not have much voluntary movement in his body, he did have some ability in one hand. “He learned to write with his left hand because it was stronger than his right,” his sister Margaret recalls. “He typed his essays one-finger-style using a pencil that fit into a cuff that he strapped onto his hand. He even typed my essay one time when I was at university and feeling overwhelmed. He said he needed the practice! After learning to breathe on his own and developing a tolerance for sitting all day, he had so many obstacles to overcome, but typing my essay for me was kind of above and beyond.”
Older brother Don remembers Paul as always full of fun. “He enjoyed people tremendously,” he says. “The rest of us were much more serious in comparison, though he had a serious side, too, especially concerning his health and preserving what he could. He did everything possible to live—and to live well, never hurting people, but enjoying everyone as much as he could. He was really remarkable that way. If people met him, they always remembered him.”
By 1983, Jacqueline Rochon had become a friend of the family. She had been teaching for a few months at St. Basil’s Catholic School with Phyllis and began attending gatherings at the family cottage. That same year, Paul moved to his first apartment on Carling Avenue, which had 24-hour attendant care. He was excited to move on to the next stages of life. Paul ran errands with an adapted Chevy van that had a ramp. Joseph and Paul installed a racing-car steering-wheel speed ball. Paul would push forward to brake and back for gas. This had been reversed after he found he didn’t have enough strength to push for acceleration. Paul tapped a toggle switch with the left side of his head to indicate turns. On the top of the door there were toggle switches for lights, heat, windows, and windshield wipers. Paul’s mechanical knowledge came in handy, as all of the knobs and switches required extensive fine-tuning to work properly. He often travelled to Montreal to see Expos games with his friends.
“What was best was that the handicap section was behind home plate—the best spot in all of Olympic Stadium,” Kiedrowski says. “Paul was allowed an escort, who did not pay, and Paul’s ticket was not all that expensive, so for a few people, it was a great deal. We’d stop for a Reuben sandwich on the way back to Ottawa.”
On a summer day in 1986, Paul and Jacqueline married at St. Maurice’s Church in Nepean. Paul drove Jackie around on his lap in his wheelchair during the bride-and-groom dance. Two years later, the couple bought a bungalow on David Drive, across the street from Paul’s parents.
“Brief his life, but long his love,” Rochon says now. She is retired from teaching and living in Aylmer, Que. The couple had plans to travel to Australia and were talking about having children, but much changed after Paul was diagnosed with liver cancer and given just six months to live. The couple decided to make the best of it. They rented a cabin on Mississippi Lake—the same one where they had spent their honeymoon, but Paul came down with pneumonia and they had to cut the vacation short. “All we could do was try and take it one day at a time,” Rochon says. “I don’t regret one day.”
“I remember visiting him in the hospital,” says McCloskey. “I was really struck by how calm he was about things. He wasn’t without hope that something could be done, but I don’t think he really believed it. He didn’t like things to be about him, and if you’re dying, things are about you. He was not comfortable with that, so he would deflect and say, ‘Oh, it might be all right.’ ”
On May 17, 1989, Paul woke up and said to Jacqueline, “Today is a good day to die.” His cousin, Mary Barry, seeing that Paul laboured to breathe, said, “It’s okay, Paul. Just go toward the light.” He was quieter after she spoke. The next morning, on a sunny spring day, just six weeks after receiving the diagnosis, Paul Menton died at home, taking his last breath as Jacqueline was washing his face.
His sister Margaret was in the room. “I felt his presence standing right beside me,” she says. “I thought, he is so tall. Then I felt him respond that I had not seen him standing in a long time! Paul had a sense of humour.”
The Paul Menton Centre for Persons with Disabilities was officially opened less than a year later, on January 15, 1990. The ceremony, held inside the centre on the fifth floor of the Unicentre, was a chance for attendees to see the expanded space and an improved resource library. The amendments came from a $194,000 grant from the provincial government. More than 75 colleagues and friends watched as Phyllis Menton and then Carleton president Robin Farquhar cut the ribbon. Joseph Menton talked about Paul’s dedication in making Carleton accessible. “He was, in a sense, a pioneer,” Joseph said. “He worked so hard along with others to make Carleton accessible.”
Previously, there had been no central command, so a disabled student had to deal with a variety of offices, including admissions, registration, housing and academic departments.
Nowadays, Carleton is routinely lauded as being the country’s most accessible university because of its support services, including tutors, note takers, one-on-one learning support, adaptive-equipment loans, sign-language interpretation, screening and referrals for learning disability assessment.
The centre’s 50 attendants offer disabled students full-time aides to help with challenges that stand in the way of learning. The service was recently extended to faculty and staff members.
In that sense, one could say that Paul’s legacy is assured and his goal realized with the work of the centre. Still, the work is not done. Needs continue to change, and the definition of disability—once referring only to visible things—has expanded to include less visible disabilities. Nearly 92 percent of current clients at the centre have non-visible disabilities, with learning disabilities being the largest subset, followed by psychiatric and medical disabilities. The centre’s offshoot initiative, FIT: Action (From Intention to Action), helps students with mental-health and ongoing personal issues through counselling, mentoring and academic coaching. The READ Initiative (Research, Education, Accessibility Design) fosters and supports research on accessibility. Both programs address rising needs. In addition, Carleton launched a minor in disability studies in the fall of 2014, where students can explore the personal, social, political, economic and cultural issues relating to disability. The program is housed in the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies, reflecting the complexity of perspective, and keeps Carleton at the forefront of research.
It is anticipated that the Paul Menton Centre will serve 2,100 clients in the 2015–2016 academic year, up from 1,934 in 2013–2014. Those students represent 6.9 percent of Carleton’s total enrolment of nearly 28,000 students.
Once, the goal was to make the campus wheelchair accessible and provide a decent education to those with disabilities. Now there is momentum to create what should follow logically from a quality education: meaningful employment opportunities for people with disabilities—careers, not just jobs, and well-paying ones at that.
“If you’re credentialed and have a disability, your chances of being unemployed are twice of those without a disability. Why is that?” asks McCloskey. “We can now exclude the fact that students aren’t being supported—they’re graduating on par with the general population. Now is the right time to put in place programs in the community and the business world for persons with disabilities.”
McCloskey has been working closely with David Onley. As Ontario’s first lieutenant-governor with a physical disability—childhood polio left him partially paralyzed—he has been at the forefront of a national conversation on work and accessibility. Onley makes the business case for hiring people with disabilities, saying they are productive, engaged employees and many require only small, affordable adaptations to work spaces. There is also a business case to be made about the benefit to society when someone works and pays taxes, not to mention the many benefits from fulfilling, steady work.
“A lot of the reasons why people were kept out of post-secondary employment and work were artificial reasons based on the way we used to do things,” McCloskey says. “Technology has changed things; attitudes have changed. Disability—it’s the one group of people where you can still get away with discrimination. Managers assume there is support that costs more money, but statistics say they make better employees. If it’s a $500 cost, why would you get tripped up on the $500 to accommodate?”
Accommodation, as defined by the Paul Menton Centre, means removing barriers so that students with disabilities can participate fully in their education without compromising academic standards. It revolves around three factors: dignity, individualization and inclusion.
Applying those concepts to building careers will be the focus of the centre in the coming years, while the university’s administration will also focus on funding entrepreneurship programs for people with disabilities in order to build on what Paul Menton established. It is an issue that was important to him. At the time of his death, Paul was anticipating a move to Treasury Board to advise on the landmark pay-equity case for federal-service workers. He had worked with a number of boards and community groups to address issues of independent living. “Paul created a community of support,” Margaret Manery says. “He was a dear friend and deeply loved by everyone who knew him. His brilliance and easygoing nature are sorely missed.”