Tom Wheeler Patch

Class of 1987-1988

In Sanskrit, there is a word for the perfect integration of livelihood with life’s purpose: dharma. Some of us know from the time we’re kids what we’re going to be when we grow up. Others venture down a few different paths before finding the right one, and still others of us discover our life’s work by accident.

Tom Wheeler Patch was going to be a ski pro. “I was a jock and a very poor student,” he says of his 15-year-old self. But a diving accident broke two vertebrae in his neck and left him quadriplegic. “I quickly realized that being in a wheelchair was going to make it very difficult to make a living [in sports]. I was going to have to do something with my intellectual abilities which, until that point, had been sort of hidden—at least to me.” So on top of relearning how to execute take-it-for-granted daily tasks, Patch had to learn how to learn. “At university … it took me a semester or two to learn how to write papers, how to research, how to be something more than a mediocre student.” Wheelchair sports in the early ’70s not being what they are today, Patch relinquished black diamond runs and goalposts for the more level playing field of the mind.

Among professionals known for their loquaciousness, Tom Patch is a listener, not a talker. A little challenging in an interview, but an ideal quality in a psychologist, the career for which he first trained. Armed with the Bridges Medal for Outstanding Graduating Student in Psychology (Concordia, 1977), Patch headed west to pursue graduate work at UBC. He dropped out after two years: “It wasn’t a comfortable fit.” He took a job with the BC Coalition of the Disabled (now the BC Coalition of People with Disabilities), examining human rights protections for people with disabilities. For the first time, he says, “I became aware that there were laws out there that could be used to advocate for social reform. It is not a stretch to trace my career back to that minimum-wage summer work.”

His next job, as an officer with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, brought him into daily contact with legal issues and lawyers, and his enjoyment of the interactions convinced him to apply to law school. He earned his LL.B. from UBC in 1988 and clerked for a year with the BC Supreme Court, then joined Russell & DuMoulin first as an articled student and later as an associate lawyer. From 1991 through 1996, he was a member of the BC Council of Human Rights, after which he spent four years as an adjudicator with the BC Human Rights Tribunal—listening. “As an adjudicator,” he says, “you have to hear both sides and make a determination, and you have to be very careful to be as neutral as possible.”

In 2002, Patch returned to UBC, this time as an adjunct professor of law, and for the past three years has taught courses in Equality and Social Justice, and Human Rights, often co-instructing with Bill Black. A dedicated lifelong learner, Patch gets at least as much out of his classes as his students do, and the work takes him out of his comfort zone. “As a teacher, sometimes you want to be provocative … to challenge students to think in ways that may not have occurred to them before. You want to push them. That’s actually been, for me, the biggest challenge.”

Patch has no trouble pushing himself, however; in 2003, he began work on his LL.M. thesis—“Equal in Theory: An Assessment of Anti-Discrimination Statutes as Equality Tools for People with Disabilities,” an analysis of the effectiveness of Canadian human rights statutes in achieving equality for people with disabilities—and he will have his Master’s degree by the time this magazine goes to press. “They are a useful tool,” Patch concluded through his research, “but they’re a limited tool. Alone, they’re not capable of achieving the substantive equality that people with disabilities seek.”

If some people are still more equal than others, so are some CVs, disability or no. In addition to listing his education and employment, numerous awards, teaching and curriculum design credits, conference presentations and publications, Patch’s also highlights his community service and advocacy work, including his directorship with the Community Legal Assistance Society. A member of the executive, litigation and human rights committees, Patch is particularly proud of the group’s achievements on behalf of a wide variety of non-profit groups in the areas of poverty and human rights.

As of October first, subject to Board approval (still pending at the time of printing), Patch becomes UBC’s new Associate Vice President, Equity, charged with addressing equity issues, including harassment and discrimination, on behalf of faculty, staff and students university wide. He is not so much daunted by the challenge as excited; after all, this is Patch’s black diamond run, his comfortable fit, his dharma.

Written by Diane Haynes and originally published in the UBC Law Alumni Magazine, Fall 2005.