Disability case headed to court [interactive web technology]

TheStar.com – Living/healthzone.ca
May 8, 2010. Helen Hnderson

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s relationship with democracy has come under increasing scrutiny during his tenure at the helm of our country. Little things like circumventing Parliament and Canadians’ right to know come to mind.

You can add to that Ottawa’s obstinate refusal to provide Canadians who are blind with equal, interactive access to government websites for everything from pensions to passports.

Thanks to a tech-savvy MBA who also happens to be blind, the issue will be aired in federal court, hopefully later this year.

The case, which will test this country’s commitment to Charter rights for all citizens, including those with disabilities, is exactly the type of legal challenge that could go right up to the Supreme Court, costing taxpayers untold millions.

It’s hard to understand why. Affordable technology to rectify the situation is readily available.

And just two months ago, Canada ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, pledging equal, open access to everyone no matter how they move, communicate or process information.

Yet Ottawa seems determined.

The genesis of this case goes back more than a decade, when Donna Jodhan, who earned her MBA at McGill University, wanted to apply for jobs with Statistics Canada and other federal departments.

To her dismay, she found the online application process wasn’t accessible to her because she is blind. When she repeatedly tried to point this out, she says she was rebuffed if not ignored.

Finally, she sought legal counsel.

Bakerlaw, a firm that specializes in human rights issues took the case. But it wasn’t the only entity with legal expertise that thought Jodhan’s argument had merit.

She received funding from the Court Challenges Program of Canada, set up to help those who would not otherwise have the means to bring forward “important court cases that advance language and equality rights guaranteed under Canada’s Constitution.” (Stephen Harper would later cancel the Court Challenges Program, but not before it had agreed Jodhan’s case fell within its mandate.)

In her suit against the government, Jodhan is not asking for any monetary compensation. She is simply asking Ottawa to work with technical experts and Canadians who are visually impaired to make sure that government application forms for jobs, pensions, passports and other key services are accessible.

“The way things are it’s as if we just don’t count, as if we’re not important enough to bother with,” she says.

Yet a 2003 federal task force on access to information for print-disabled Canadians tallied the numbers at 3 million “or about 10 per cent of the population.”

Also on board as an adviser for Jodhan in her court case is Jutta Treviranus, director of the University of Toronto’s Adaptive Technology Resource Centre.

The real problem is not that the technology isn’t readily available and affordable; it’s that when it comes to interactive web technologies the government’s road map is flawed, says Treviranus.

In the statement of facts it plans to present to the court, Ottawa says: “Canada is committed to making federal government websites accessible to the broadest audience possible, including for the visually impaired. To give effect to this commitment, the Treasury Board adopted internationally recognized web accessibility standards through the Common Look and Feel Standards for the Internet in May of 2000.”

Sounds good on paper but Treviranus says the way the Common Look and Feel Standards are written make them counterproductive when it come to designing interactive websites accessible to Canadians who are blind.

“They really need to update the standards,” she says. “The supportive structure is lacking.”

A spokesperson for the Treasury Board declined to comment on the court case.

Jodhan started an online petition to Parliament asking it to ensure that all government websites are interactively accessible by Dec. 31 this year. Online is the only accessible way for Canadians who are blind to participate. But she says she has been told the government will not accept online petitions.

The Treasury Board spokesperson declined to comment on that, too.

Not my kind of democracy.

< http://www.healthzone.ca/health/illnessesissues/disabilities/article/804965–henderson-disability-case-headed-to-court >.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *