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From Dream to Reality

By Ileana Brito

Photo of Aaron Marsaw

Losing his sight at 12 is probably the greatest challenge Aaron Marsaw has faced to date. After a surgery to remove a tumour behind his eye left him blind, with only 2 per cent peripheral vision in one eye, he had to re-learn how to do everything from reading and writing to walking to feeding himself without winding up wearing half of his meal. “After overcoming the sight impairment, with the encouragement of family, friends, the school system and the community, I embraced the philosophy of never giving up. I learned that I'm able to lead a full and active life just like anyone else. That realization has probably been my greatest strength in terms of taking on subsequent challenges,” says Marsaw.

Reflecting back on his high school career, Aaron Marsaw remembers the encouragement of one debating coordinator, who upon witnessing Marsaw’s vigour and raw talent in a debating competition, suggested he consider a career in law. That was it. The seed was planted. The more Marsaw began to understand himself - his values and his motivators - the more a career in law made sense to him. He has a passion for helping people, a passion for communicating and boy does he love to analyze! Taking a mix of international development, law and political science courses at McGill, he worked extremely hard to make sure he stayed on top of his material. When it came to accommodation needs, he took the lead. He spoke with every professor at the beginning of the year and, “asked that to the extent they'd be using overheads or the blackboard to try to verbalize what was written. That worked better in some classes than in others. For example, in my math course (laughs) that remained an obstacle in the classroom setting.” He also made great use of scanners, audio books. Most importantly he didn't leave things in the hands of others - he acted as his own advocate, which is something he believes is extremely important for students with disabilities.

In his second year of university, Marsaw’s academic advisor encouraged him to consider applying for a Rhodes Scholarship. In his final year of studies, that's just what he did and after completing the rigorous application process, he learned that he, Aaron Marsaw, was one of only two Ontario Rhodes Scholars. An enormous achievement, Marsaw went on to study international development at the prestigious Oxford College before returning to Canada to take the next step toward making his dream a reality - law school.

A few months after being called to the bar, Marsaw was focusing all his energies on his job hunt. Unlike many graduates, he wasn't just applying to open positions, he was also setting up informational interviews with people in the field. His goal? To find out more about career paths and to build his network. “I was interested in Human Rights so I was talking to people working the UNHCR and the lawyers working in the Department of Justice. I focused a lot on Ottawa because I had a lot of experience living here and because I'm multilingual. Playing on my strengths, I thought it would be a good place to launch my career.” His hard work and strategy paid off. Having spoken with so many people in the Department of Justice, when an unadvertised position became available, Marsaw was top-of-mind.

To ensure he was able to do the best job possible, Marsaw made sure to communicate his accommodation needs to his employer. They include screen reading software, the zoom text on his computer, a close circuit television, and type and speak software. He advises students, “Tell your manager what your needs are. Explain how you work and if you can, show them so they can see why you need the accommodation. If they don't know what your needs are, they can't be faulted for not meeting them.”

Working as part of a legal team with the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND), Marsaw was engrossed in an exciting and challenging world and doing what he loves most - helping people. As council for DIAND, he conducts legal research, analyzes issues and tries to find solutions and, works to piece together a legal picture on any given issue. One of his main responsibilities is briefing his superiors on relevant issues. He and his colleagues meet and interact frequently. “Justice speaks with one voice. It's very much one big machine. Part of our job is making sure that the machine is functioning as one whole,” he describes.

In his last few years with DIAND, his role has expanded to include training fellow lawyers, support staff and paralegals on access to information and privacy laws. Being able to share his knowledge and to help his fellow coworkers is something Marsaw takes great joy from.

Recently offered a new position with Citizens and Immigration Legal Services, Marsaw jumped at the chance to tackle a new challenge. While his responsibilities will be similar, he'll have the opportunity to get a different slant on the law and to work with a different client.

Down the road, he hopes to “continue practicing law and to teach. I think I said that in an interview two years ago (laughs). That's still my goal.”

When asked about his future goals, he tells me, “ It's very important (to me) to get involved in many different activities, partly as an experience of awareness for sighted people in terms of what blindness and disability are about. I'd like to continue to take on leadership where I identify a need whether that be on a local-, national-, or international-level.”

Aaron Marsaw loves to help people so it's not surprising that when he had the opportunity to help students with disabilities navigate an important part of the job search process - informational interview - he took it. For those of you who didn't get to hear his workshop, here are some of the highlights.