Rescuing Accessibility: The Legal Community’s Role in Achieving SDG #16 on International Day of Persons with Disabilities

December 3rd is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The theme for 2023 is “United in action to rescue and achieve the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] for, with, and by persons with disabilities.”

What does this year’s theme mean to you? I’ll be honest and say that it didn’t mean anything in particular to me at first, although I was struck by the word “rescue.” I had to Google the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – SDGs for those in the know.

SDGs are 17 global goals set to address a wide range of social, economic and environmental issues. These goals need to be “rescued” because there are serious challenges facing almost all of them, and not just as they relate to persons with disabilities. We’re nowhere near achieving SDG #13, for example, which is to take urgent action to combat climate change.

I zeroed in on SDG #16, which is peace, justice and strong institutions. The UN’s website describes the goal like this: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

What does that mean to you?

For me, December as a month has always symbolized the end of the year. The calendar reminds me that one more year has passed, and it has passed quickly, and that the year to come will pass just as fast. This December 3rd, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities reminds me that only one short year remains until the January 1, 2025 deadline for all public and private organizations in Ontario to implement the accessibility standards of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). There’s just one year left to achieve the AODA’s stated purpose of “developing, implementing and enforcing accessibility standards in order to achieveaccessibility for Ontarians with disabilities with respect to goods, services, facilities, accommodation, employment, buildings, structures and premises on or before January 1, 2025”.

Does this goal need to be rescued too?

The latest legislative review of the AODA found that Ontario has repeatedly failed in its commitment to create a more accessible experience for Ontarians with disabilities. The report ends on a dismal note: that the province has yet to meet the basic needs of a group of people totalling over one fifth of its population. Without urgent and sustained intervention, the report concludes that disability regulation tied to the AODA will fail to make Ontario accessible by the 2025 deadline.

The report closes with a simple question: Do you care?

December of 2023 marks not only the end of a transformative and challenging year, but also the beginning of a crucial countdown for the legal community in Ontario. The theme for this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities echoes our shared responsibility to create a more inclusive and equitable environment for persons with disabilities, emphasizing the importance of collaborative action in Ontario to meet the AODA deadline and align with the broader SDGs to emphasize inclusivity and accessibility for individuals with disabilities.

Members of OTLA can play a pivotal role in ensuring AODA compliance within their practices and the legal profession more broadly. Crafting and implementing inclusive policies and procedures within law firms is essential. We can contribute by developing guidelines that align with AODA requirements, fostering inclusivity in the workplace, and promoting awareness of these policies amongst staff and clients. Legal professionals can also engage in educational initiatives to raise awareness about disability rights, accessibility and the AODA. This includes providing training sessions for legal professionals, clients, and the broader community. Most importantly, we can help rescue SDG #16 by supporting initiatives that would make justice more accessible to persons with disabilities.

As we commemorate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities this December, let’s recognize the transformative nature of 2023 and use our experiences to propel us forward. The legal profession’s commitment to inclusivity aligns with the AODA here in Ontario and the global vision encapsulated by the SDGs, particularly #16. We have an important role to play in not just rescuing and realizing these goals for people with disabilities, but to ensure that laws and policies promote inclusivity, accessibility, and equal protection for everyone for years to come.

Written by

Daniel is an articling student at Neinstein LLP.