Thursday, June 24, 2010

Accessibility Standards and Education - The Ontario Context

Read an article recently about the Internet Archive, an increasingly popular Internet library of web resources developed and maintained by a non-profit, and how they have made about one million books easily accessible for people with disabilities, such as blindness or dyslexia, by converting the books to a new format called DAISY: a format which can be downloaded to devices that can read the books aloud.

The books are available to anyone, and while this brings about some implications for educators, and in my opinion mostly positive, it did remind me of the work that's happening here at home in Ontario to increase accessibility standards and services to persons with disabilities: a major initiative which, unfortunately, does not appear to have generated much attention in education circles.

Developing Accessibility Standards for Ontarians
Building or providing information resources for persons with disabilities will soon be a regulated standard in Ontario. In fact, this past January1, 2010, all public sector services which provide goods or services to the public or other organizations in Ontario had to be in compliance with the Accessibility Standards for Customer Service Regulation (O. Reg 429/7), as enforced by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), 2005: and yes, this also applies to every district school board as defined in section 1 of the Education Act. The enforcement of this standard has started to have an impact on the library world at both the operational and policy levels and will increase with consumer awareness. And over the next few years a number of other regulated AODA, 2005 accessibility standards will be released and in-force which address the following key areas:
  • Built Environment
  • Employment
  • Information and Communications
  • Transportation
The Information and Communications standard will be the one which will have the greatest impact on our work and the services we deliver. Ensuring that alternate formats are available for materials we publish or produce (e.g. library guides, pathfinders, instruction sheets, presentations, etc.) to serve users with low vision, intellectual or other cognitive disabilities, physical disabilities, etc.. For many of us this is a major overhaul of our systems, processes, and policies and will inevitably take time to do. Everything from how we prepare our documents, to providing screen readers, audio formats, accessible websites / services, and a slew of appropriate or required assistive technologies to ensure that your services can be delivered to persons with disabilities.

For those of you who live in Ontario, Canada, and are involved in preparing web and information resources for your students or school library, I highly recommend that you check out AccessON, the Ministry of Community and Social Services' site specifically developed to communicate the principles and progress of AODA, 2005 and it's accompanying standards. And of course, it's always smart to keep on top of everything that's going on at the Ontario Library Association (OLA), more specifically the Ontario School Library Association branch of the OLA.

Some Background on the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), 2005
A few facts about disabilities in Ontario: there are about 1.85 million people in Ontario have disabilities, which accounts for about 15.5% of Ontario's population; and with the aging population, the number of Ontarians with a disability will increase...in fact, projections show that in 2025 majority of persons with disabilities will be 65+ years of age.

Ontario is the only jurisdiction in Canada to have legislation that establishes a comprehensive goal for regulated accessibility standards, and the first jurisdiction in the world to move from complaints-based legislation to a regulatory model in the area of mandated accessibility.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), 2005 uses the same definition of "disability" as the Ontario Human Rights Code, including both visible and non-visible disabilities. In the Act, "disability" means:
  • any degree of physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement that is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, includes diabetes mellitus, epilepsy, a brain injury, any degree of paralysis, amputation, lack of physical coordination, blindness or visual impediment, deafness or hearing impediment, muteness or speech impediment, or physical reliance on a guide dog or other animal or on a wheelchair or other remedial appliance or device
  • a condition of mental impairment or a developmental disability,
  • a learning disability, or a dysfunction in one or more of the processes involved in understanding or using symbols or spoken language,
  • a mental disorder
Both the public sector and private sector are required to comply with all accessibility standards to be introduced by the AODA, 2005: not necessarily at the same time, for example the private sector is expected to be in compliance with the Customer Service standard regulation by 2012, a full two years after the public sector. But this fact touches upon the very lofty and challenging goal of the Act and its standards - to have a fully accessible Ontario by 2025. This means your corner variety store in Ontario will have to be fully compliant to all AODA, 2005 accessibility standards by 2025...now that's a tall order.