Although his speaking voice has been silenced by a debilitating illness, Mr. Justice Sam Filer’s actions and attitude says volumes about dignity, hope, and perseverance.
Judge Filer, 60, was one of seven brave individuals to receive the 1995 Courage to Come Back award from the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in Toronto.
Presented November 30, the awards recognized people from throughout the province who have come back from illness, injury, or addiction, and who use their struggle to help and inspire others. The recipients were chosen from among 48 people nominated.
Ex-Toronto Blue Jay Paul Molitor and Olympic rowing champion Silken Laumann were honorary co-chairs for the annual campaign. A Saskatchewan native, Judge Filer was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 1987. The disease manifests itself in slurred speech and soreness, and progresses to the point where all the muscles, including the hands, are severely weakened.
The judge is now completely paralysed except for some eye movement and some limited mobility of the jaw. He communicates with his jaw muscle to send Morse Code impulses through a myoelectric conductor attached to his cheek. The words pass through a computer, a voice synthesizer, and finally to a printout.
While Judge Filer’s communication may be laboured, his attitude is energetic.
“I enjoy being in the company of colleagues and friends whom I respect and who regard me in terms of what I can do, not what I cannot do,” he told the Clarke Foundation.
Despite the increasing physical disability, Judge Filer continues to serve with the Ontario Court system. He said his illness led to some deep soul searching.
“I admit there was a time when I used to wake up each morning wondering what else I else I was going to be unable to do,” he said. “But through my wife’s infinite patience, guidance and wisdom, I began to focus on those abilities I still retained rather than mourn those I had lost. In fact, I spend a lot of time counting my blessings.”
Judge Filer’s efforts to overcome disability have inspred not only his wife and four children, but an entire community struggling with the question of euthanasia.
Eighteen months after he was first diagnosed with ALS, Judge Filer’s condition deteriorated to the point where both his lungs collapsed. Doctor’s recommended against the use of a respirator, arguing that his quality of life would be poor and that measure to keep the judge alive would place extreme burdens on his wife and the rest of the family.
Filer’s wife, Toni Silberman, decided to stand her ground, insisting that doctors surgically connect the respirator. That was over six years ago, and today, Judge Filer continues to work full-time in the Ontario court. In addition, he remains active in support of human rights, civil liberties and Jewish community issues.
In a courageous stand against some who would attempt to define quality of life for others, Judge Filer and his family continue to add new dignity to the entire debate.
Judge Filer’s attitude toward his disability can be seen as a combination of perseverance and hope. Above all, he believes the disabled and their families are the best ones to determine what quality of life means.