Accessible technology increasingly a requirement for businesses

Under the Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act, private businesses operating in the province will have to meet new accessibility standards for customer service by the beginning of next year. Other standards will follow over the next few years.

But the law, passed in 2005, really just adds specifics to a responsibility businesses across the country have had under human rights legislation for about a quarter century.

“In a nutshell,” says Gil Zvulony, a lawyer with technology-law experience and founder and director of Toronto law firm Zvulony and Co., “an employer has a duty to accommodate an employee with a disability provided that it’s not unduly harsh.” The same applies to accommodating customers with disabilities, Zvulony adds. So if a there’s a way to offer someone with a disability the same service or the same ability to do his or her job as a person without that disability, and the employer can afford the cost of doing it, the employer could possibly be taken to court for not doing so.

That legislation helps, says John Rae, first vice-chair of the Council of Canadians With Disabilities and first vice-president of the Alliance for the Equality of Blind Canadians – but it lacks specifics. “There are a lot of organizations that say we don’t really know what we need to do.” So under the Ontario act, representatives of business, government and the disabled community are putting together specific guidelines.

The first of these, the customer-service guideline, already applies to public-sector organizations. It takes effect for the private sector starting Jan. 1, 2012. It doesn’t specifically require accessible technology, but does say businesses communicating with a person with a disability must do so “in a manner that takes into account the person’s disability,” and that “persons with disabilities must be given an opportunity equal to that given to others to obtain, use and benefit from the goods or services.”

An accessibility standard for employment, which includes a requirement to make information available to employees in accessible formats, will apply to private businesses over the next few years. Small businesses with fewer than 20 employees have until the beginning of 2017 to comply; larger organizations must do so by the beginning of 2016. But all employers must provide emergency response information to employees in a format they can use by the beginning of 2012.

So far Ontario is the only province with specific legislation like this, Rae says, but Manitoba is considering something similar.

Meanwhile, human rights law applies in all provinces. And while that legislation has for many years said businesses should accommodate disabled employees and customers as long as doing so doesn’t impose undue hardship, Zvulony says, the evolution of technology arguably means more accommodation is required now than in the past. “As soon as these new technologies make it easier to accommodate,” he says, “then it robs the hardship argument.”

Widespread use of the Web has made accessible Web sites more important and improving technology has made them easier to achieve, he says. “If a company is going to be designing a new Web site today, they should probably have accessibility in mind.”

The World Wide Web Consortium publishes comprehensive standards for designing accessible websites.

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