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Workshop Offers Lawyers Insight Into Disability Issues

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Toronto Star, November 15, 2003. *Images: ARCH Executive Director Phyllis Gordon, and the ARCH logo.

In the spirit of promising beginnings--David Miller at Toronto City Hall, Dalton McGuinty at Queen's Park--there are high hopes for a new plan to raise the profile of disability issues on the radar screens of Ontario lawyers.

There's no shortage of areas to tackle, all of them dramatically affecting the quality of life for people who move, communicate and/or process information in ways society labels "different."

What obligations do Ontario schools, businesses and government offices have to meet the needs of people with disabilities and how can lawyers defend those rights? What can lawyers do for clients whose applications for disability support have been denied even though their doctors say they should be entitled?

What are the key tax considerations for people with disabilities? And what are the most important issues in choosing a trustee or making a will in favour of someone with a disability?

Those are the types of issues on the agenda at a free half-day "continuing education" workshop for lawyers. Scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 27, it will be the first step in what sponsors hope will be an expanding program.

If it's a success, they'll move on to tackle broader, big-ticket disability issues in the areas of education, health care and transportation.

In return for the free session, lawyers attending the workshop will donate some of their time during the following 12 months to help handle legal matters for clients with disabilities.

"We've had a lot of interest already," says Phyllis Gordon, executive director of ARCH, a legal aid resource centre for people with disabilities. ARCH is co-sponsoring the project with Pro Bono Law Ontario, a non-profit, province-wide group that helps people who don't qualify for legal aid but lack the means to hire a lawyer.

The Law Society of Upper Canada and the Law Foundation of Ontario are providing funding.

"It's not difficult to get lawyers involved in pro bono work once they know we can help them organize things," says Pro Bono's executive director Lynn Burns.

"They don't get a lot of credit but they already do a lot."

In the area of disability rights, "interest has grown, partly because of the Charter of Rights and the work of organizations like the Ontario Human Rights Commission, but also because there's been an increase in the number of people with disabilities entering the legal profession," adds Jose Bouchard, equity adviser for the Law Society of Upper Canada.

ARCH itself goes to court only in precedent-setting test cases. But it is available for consultation by lawyers dealing with disability issues. And it offers the public a telephone advice and referral service.

"The questions being asked relate to really complex issues," says Gordon, which is one of the reasons the service can't keep up with demand from the public.

It's currently being reviewed and a redesign is planned but, ultimately, the answer to making the justice system more accessible lies in encouraging all lawyers across the province to get more involved.

ARCH and Pro Bono Law Ontario plan to take their free workshop on the road across the province next year.

If nothing else, demographics suggest that disability issues should be an expanding area of the law.

With each advancing year, more members of the once-able-bodied population are learning the hard way what it's like to face barriers to participating in things they've always taken for granted.

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Reprinted with permission--Torstar Syndication Services.

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