Threat to rights tribunal demands a response

TheStar.com – living – Threat to rights tribunal demands a response
July 04, 2009.   Helen Henderson

So Tim Hudak wants to dismantle the Ontario Human Rights tribunal.

For the newly minted provincial Progressive Conservative leader, this platform undoubtedly has conservative appeal, but it is by no stretch of the imagination progressive.

Indeed, as the Star’s Jim Coyle so aptly put it, by the time the Mike Harris protégé had claimed his crown last weekend, “anything `progressive’ about the party had pretty much left the building.”

The Canadian Charter of Rights states that “every individual has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disability.”

Yet the human rights tribunal is the only quasi-judicial body in this province that offers those not trained as lawyers access to knowledgeable help in assessing and arguing the merits of their cases.

Trust me, you do not stand much chance of fighting injustice without qualified assistance. Which puts the price of justice way out of reach for anyone struggling to make ends meet.

Most families that include someone with a disability are doing just that, even when the economy is at its strongest.

Three years ago, the federal Conservatives cancelled the Court Challenges Program that helped those with limited finances get equal representation before the law.

Now the Ontario party is on the same campaign trail in the run-up to 2011, when the province is scheduled to go to the polls.

I’d say it’s never too early to start marshalling forces and taking a stand.

Is Ontario going to be an inclusive place where people of all abilities can contribute to the growth of their communities?

Or are we a place that excludes anyone who moves or communicates or processes information differently from the majority.

Already, the wheels are in motion to take a hard look at such issues.

Last month, the province announced it has appointed consultant Charles Beer to conduct a review of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).

It came into force in June four years ago, developing sets of accessibility standards and rules to be brought into customer service, transportation, information and communications, employment and the so-called built environment, which includes infrastructure. This year’s review was mandated as part of the Act.

Beer, who spent a brief time as Ontario’s minister of social services from 1989 to 1990, when the Liberals went down to defeat at the hands of Mike Harris, says he is still in the process of getting organized. He is expected to hand in a report by January.

Even though the AODA has been in effect for four years, “there are still a lot of people just realizing that they have to comply,” Beer says.

Preliminary plans call for consultations online and in person with “targeted groups” and the public.

“We’re going to try to have some open meetings,” he says.

“The question is: how many and where.”

That’s one of the key questions for lawyer David Lepofsky, a vocal representative of the disability community.

As he puts it on the website of the AODA Alliance, a coalition of disability groups and individuals: there must be “advertised, open, accessible, province-wide public forums to gather input from the public including the disability community. These forums must not be by invitation-only.”

Lepofsky also cautions against repealing too quickly the 2001 Ontarians With Disabilities Act, a predecessor to the AODA, which he says may include some provisions – such as an employment accommodation fund – worthy of incorporating into the later Act.

Beer says he is in the process of putting together a website on the AODA review.

Until it’s up and running, check www.mcss.gov.on.ca/mcss/english/news/backgrounders/ 090612.htm.

You may also get information from aodaalliance.org and you can may reach Charles Beer at charles.beer@ontario.ca

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