Rod Carpenter – The inspiration for Reach Canada

In February of this year, Reach Canada lost one of its founding members and the inspiration for its inception, Rod Carpenter. 

To say Rod was an exceptional person is an understatement.  Born with cerebral palsy, he was passed along through his high school classes despite less-than-stellar grades.  He reached Grade 11 with poor writing and grammar skills.  Luckily, Ernest Tannis, a recent addition to the Canterbury High School staff, saw his potential and tutored him, helping the young man reach his potential and achieve his dream of attending university.

Those familiar with the Reach family will know Ernie Tannis, another of its founding members.  And Ernie will tell you how inspiring and accomplished Rod was. 

Upon graduating with a BA from Carleton University, Rod started up a company called Handicappers which advised governments and organizations on how to provide more accessible workplaces for people with disabilities. He was a man ahead of his time.  From that, he was able to convince Treasury Board to create a position for him to help the federal public service create accessible and accommodating workplaces.  He worked with them for decades and changed the face of the Canadian public service for the better.

Despite his many accomplishments, Rod Carpenter was not allowed to hold a credit card in his own name.  Because of his disability, Rod could not sign his name.  And the rules before 1981 would not allow a person who could not sign their own name to have a credit card.  Imagine that.  A university graduate, an entrepreneur and a long-time public servant was denied this basic right that most of us take for granted.  Rod did not like that idea and turned to his friend Ernie for help.

The United Nations declared 1981 to be the International Year of Disabled Persons and Rod’s mission to gain this basic right dovetailed perfectly with this initiative.  Additionally, Ernie was working to create Reach – an organization that would help people with disabilities gain access to justice and legal assistance. With the help of Ernie, Rod became Reach’s first client and together they set out to change the banking system.  After months of negotiation with the Bank of Montreal, a compromise was reached where Rod was able to use his thumbprint or a rubber-stamp signature to conduct bank business.  This precedent-setting deal paved the way for others to follow suit. 

Reach was created in February 1981 and Rod Carpenter was involved from day one.  He and Ernie, as well as Ottawa attorney Lawrence Greenspon, became the honorary founders of the organization and served on the board for many years.  To hear Ernie tell it, Rod was the idea man.  He came up with great ideas and the board carried them out.  Rod attended meetings regularly and remained active with the organization until just a few years ago.

It should be noted that Rod’s influence and inspiration extended beyond Reach and the public service.  One person impressed with Rod’s work was the US Ambassador to the United Nations, John McDonald.  Mr. McDonald, working as the US representative of the International Year of Disabled Persons, came to Ottawa a few times after learning about Reach and its mission.  He and his wife were inspired by Rod, a person with cerebral palsy, with speech challenges and his role in creating Reach Canada.  Rod’s fine example and work ethic were renowned and he was well-known in Justice Canada circles and the greater Ottawa community. 

When Rod was born, he wasn’t expected to live past the age of 20.  Rod more than surpassed that but it was still a shock to his family, friends and colleagues when he died at the age of 71. Throughout his life, he had the loving support of his wonderful family and friends to help him navigate his life. But Rod believed in ability over disability and he demonstrated his abilities throughout his career.  He lived that philosophy every day and through his work allowed other people with disabilities to do the same.  Perhaps this mission was what allowed him to enjoy a long life. 

In 2022, Reach Canada finalized negotiations to become part of ABLE2:  Support for People with Disabilities.  The Reach Legal Referral Program will become part of the excellent programs already offered by ABLE2 that support the Ottawa community and beyond.  In Rod, we find inspiration for the work we do every day.  He epitomized the mission of ABLE2 and truly lived a life of meaning and joy. 

By Kathleen Lee