Monday, September 20, 2010

The Law and Making Websites Accessible to Users with Disabilities

Distributing copies of the Canadian Charter of...Image via Wikipedia
About 3 million Canadians have disabilities that make it difficult to access sites and information on the Internet, be it from government sites or private sector sites. And this week one such Canadian, Donna Jodhan - a blind Toronto accessibility consultant, is taking the federal government to court because their websites are not accessible to blind and partially-sighted Internet users.

Donna Jodham's constitutional challenge claims that her "inability to apply for a position on the federal jobs website or complete the online version of the 2006 Census" breached her equality rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And the appelant will further argue that this is a breach against all visually impaired Canadians.

As many of us know, making websites accessible to users with low vision or blindness is not simply a case of having the proper technology installed, e.g. screen readers, screen magnifiers, etc., sites have to be designed / coded in a way to allow many of these assistive technologies to work. US and European governments have adopted, or are making a concerted effort to adopt, the latest web accessibility standards as developed and published by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), a branch of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). And the painful reality of the matter is that implementing the accessibility standards to make websites accessible is quite cheap and easy.

Donna Jodhan simply wants the court to order the federal government to "upgrade its websites to the latest accessibility standards within 12 months and monitor compliance". But what is quite interesting here is the federal government's position, which is actually a tad bullish:

Internet access to government services and information is not a right guaranteed in law, the government says in its written submission to the court.

“Alternative channels available did allow (Jodhan) to access services and information independently, in a manner that respected her privacy and dignity,” it says.

With more than 120 government departments and agencies and more than 23 million web pages, “it is unlikely that the government’s web presence will ever be perfectly accessible to all,” it adds.

A spokesperson for the federal government said Ottawa is working to make its online information as accessible as possible.
The Ontario government is already moving in that direction, and has given itself until 2025 to make Ontario fully accessible via the staged implementation of accessibility regulations / standards: any business, private or public sector, with 1 or more employees must be compliant with all the standards ( customer, information and communications, built environment, employment, and transportation), for more information our article on Accessibility Standards and Education - The Ontario Context.

Of coure, the costs and economic impact of enforcing an accessible society continues to be questioned, but study after study has shown that creating an environment where persons with disabilities can equally and actively participate will always lead to a greater economic gain for all. The most recent report to discuss this is Releasing Constraints: Projecting the Economic Impacts of Increased Accessibility in Ontario, a study released by the Martin Prosperity Institute, and prepared by the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management, Institute for Competitivenes and Prosperity, and Adaptive Technology Resource Centre.

The proposed Information and Communications Standard, which will setup a regulatory compliance structure for activities like website design, will now be integrated with the employment and transportation standards and released a single regulation. The new three-in-one regulation has been posted on Ontario's Regulatory Registry for public review and comment until October 16, 2010.

The goal in combining all three standards is to make them more flexible for businesses. For more information on these proposals see Charles Beer's review of the Act: Charles Beer was appointed by the government of Ontario to conduct the first independent review of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005.

Obviously, this is something all schools, school libraries, classrooms have to take into account if / when they create a web site for resource sharing and collaboration.

If you have any questions about the "how to" end of setting up a web site which meets accessibility standards, just send us a message.