ARCH Disability Law Centre provides access to justice

Posted on: Friday, October 9, 2009

ARCH Disability Law Centre

Child protection matters are difficult for everyone involved, no matter what the circumstances. But what happens when a child or parent has a disability that isn’t accommodated during the process?

These are the kinds of access to justice issues that ARCH Disability Law Centre – which is primarily funded by Legal Aid Ontario -- often gets involved with.

Recently a child was removed from her deaf parents but was not provided with a family support worker able to communicate in American Sign Language (ASL).

Child welfare authorities did not communicate adequately with the parents or fully explain the problems the family faced. Neither was ASL instruction provided to the child, diminishing her ability to connect with her parents and the deaf community.

The judge ordered the return of the child and ordered child welfare to assist the mother with a worker familiar with ASL. The Children’s Aid Society appealed this decision.

ARCH was granted intervenor status to act on behalf of the Canadian Hearing Society in the appeal. Intervenor status is a special standing granted to those who are not parties to the litigation itself but represent others who may be affected by the outcome.

For almost 30 years, ARCH Disability Law Centre has dedicated itself to defending and advancing the equality rights of persons with disabilities. ARCH is a community legal clinic composed of volunteer members, a volunteer elected Board of Directors, and 13 paid staff. Their membership includes approximately sixty-five disability consumer/survivor and service delivery organizations. They provide services to Ontarians only, although some work is done at the federal level.

ARCH is located on the ground floor of a downtown Toronto office building, equipped with ramps, braille on the front door and handy to a subway station – all tangible examples of the sensitivity to the accessibility issues central to their work. Their fully accessible resource centre also provides computers with adaptive technology for people with visual or motor impairments.

ARCH houses a wide collection information on disability related topics, from human rights and employment to social assistance and accessibility. The reference collection includes more than 3,000 printed books and materials in alternative formats, such as Braille, large print, electronic documents in PDF and HTML formats and audiocassettes. Their website allows users to change the colours and size of text by providing six different possibilities to accommodate a wide range of visual needs. They are currently conducting a website survey to ensure that their web visitors are finding the information they need and are revamping the site, which will be launched in early November. 2009.

ARCH recently finished collecting data for their new needs assessment survey to determine the most important issues to their community. Not surprisingly, income maintenance and employment are emerging as issues of highest priority for those surveyed. These results reinforce the need for ARCH to focus on poverty reduction for people with disabilities.

One of ARCH’s first test cases in 1983 involved Justin Clark, a child with cerebral palsy. He was unable to communicate with others, was assumed to lack the capacity to make decisions for himself and was institutionalized from age two until he was 19. When he was 15, he began to use a new system of communication called Blissymbolics, and for the first time was able to communicate his thoughts to the outside world. When he was 19 he decided, with the support of his friends, that he was ready to move out into the community. His parents disagreed and ARCH represented Justin in the legal matter. The court declared Justin competent and it was the first time Blissymbolics was used in the court room.

ARCH engages in law reform activities which are often undertaken in collaboration with other disability groups, members of the community and legal clinics. Law reform involves legal analysis, writing briefs, presentations to government and/or legislative committees and working in coalitions. They comment on the impact of current and proposed laws and practices from a disability perspective.

Recent clinic work includes;

  • representing the Ontario Network of Injured Workers Group (ONIWG) at the Supreme Court of Canada, making arguments on the requirements of the duty to accommodate employees with disabilities,
  • representing the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD) on a judicial review regarding the failure to accommodate the interests of persons with disabilities by constructing the York Street Steps in Ottawa without access for persons for whom steps are a barrier to mobility; and
  • assisting the Office of the Worker Advisor and IAVGO (Industrial Accident Victims’ Group of Ontario) in developing a challenge to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, age 65 cut-off for compensation benefits.

As well, ARCH is working with the CRTC to address the telecommunciations barriers experienced by people with disabilities and to ensure that telecommunications equipment and services are fully accessible to people with disabilities.

They have also just finalized a large project, producing a paper and a guide called the Access to Administrative Justice Project: Mental Capacity and Administrative Tribunals. This examines the barriers experienced by people who have mental capacity issues in accessing administrative tribunals, such as the Social Benefits Tribunal and the Landlord Tenant Board. Concerns about access to administrative tribunals have been raised to ARCH by people with disabilities and their advocates who are denied equal treatment before administrative tribunals as a result of questions regarding their legal capacity.

Along with test cases and law reform, ARCH provides brief services and summary legal advice by telephone, produces a wide range of publications and presentations and has prepared submissions on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.

They produce and publish ARCH Alert which has a circulation of 3,300 and subscribers as far away as Bangladesh. Issues of ARCH Alert provide timely information on proposed legislation, major cases, government consultations, community initiatives and other important disability-related initiatives and developments.