Thursday, September 23, 2010

Blind woman in Canada sues over inaccessible government Websites

From The Star in Toronto:

Donna Jodhan (pictured) was one of the first blind people in Canada to earn an MBA, in 1981, and one of the first in the world to obtain technical certifications from software companies Microsoft and Novell.

So the Toronto accessibility consultant was shocked in 2004 when she had trouble applying for a position posted on the federal government’s jobs website.

Despite her considerable technical expertise — she has won four accessibility design awards from IBM — Jodhan couldn’t get Ottawa’s online job application to work, even after repeated calls to the government helpline.

When Ottawa offered residents the option of filling out the 2006 Census online, Jodhan was thwarted once again.

“The Internet is something that is liberating to everybody — but not to blind and visually impaired Canadians,” she said in an interview. “Canada used to be at the top when it came to accessibility 10 years ago. It’s way down the list now.”

On Sept. 21, Jodhan argued in federal court 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.

She will also argue that this violation and her ongoing inability to access the government’s online information and services constitute a breach against all blind and partially sighted Canadians, said Jodhan’s lawyer David Baker.

About 3 million Canadians have visual or other impairments that make it difficult to access the Internet.

“It is just so frustrating that (the visually impaired) can’t access government information, can’t apply for government jobs — can’t use the Internet. That’s what this case is about,” Baker said in an interview.

Blind people visit websites using screen reader software which converts text to speech. But the software can’t work unless a web page includes special coding, Baker said.

American and European governments have adopted the latest international web accessibility standards for their websites as have Canadian banks and many businesses, he said. But the Canadian government has not — even though the changes would not be difficult or expensive to implement, he said.

Jodhan, who launched her case in 2006 under the now defunct Court Challenges program which helped fund equality rights cases, wants the court to order Ottawa to upgrade its websites to the latest accessibility standards within 12 months and monitor compliance.

In its written defence, the federal government argues that the Charter’s goal of providing “substantive equality” and “reasonable accommodation” to Jodhan were met through telephone help lines, by mail and in person.

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.

Ontario lawyer and disability rights activist David Lepofsky is waging a battle to make the provincial government’s websites and services accessible.

Lepofsky, who is blind, is particularly upset that the province’s new Presto electronic transit card is not accessible to the visually impaired and others.

Ontario is offering to adopt the most current international web accessibility standards, but Queen’s Park is giving itself up to 2018 and even longer for other organizations to get started, he noted.

“This is ridiculous,” Lepofsky said in an interview. “When it comes to creating new technology, experts have shown that there is . . . no significant added burden on organizations to adopt the latest standards for full accessibility. Moreover, accessibility for us usually helps lots of people, including those with no disability.

“There is absolutely no reason why any government in this country isn’t now complying with the latest international standards,” he added.