Access denied

OTTAWA — Business that fail to make their Web sites accessible to Canada’s disabled population could be forgoing a large portion of their potential market share and risk breaching the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, experts told a public sector conference Wednesday.

Speakers at the two-day

conference on Web site usability and accessibility for governments reminded the audience that the disabled comprise 16 per cent of of the population, as well as a section of the Charter that deems it illegal to discriminate on the grounds of disability.

“”Why would you do something that would preclude even 10 per cent of your market? That’s just plain stupid in terms of a business point of view,”” said Mary Frances Laughton, chief of Industry Canada’s assistive devices industry office. Laughton’s address was titled Understanding Web Site Accessibility: How to Serve All Citizens.

Laughton said her office has been vocal within the federal government to ensure that all public service Web sites successfully subscribe to common look and feel (CLF) requirements as mandated by the Treasury Board Secretariat. One of those requirements includes the use of ALT text for every single data cell on each government site. When the ALT text is detected by a screen reader, the blind user is told vocally by their computer the contents of each cell.

“”Let’s say you have a person who is blind that has a pacemaker,”” said Laughton, “”and Health Canada has decided to only offer its health alerts on the Net. If that person can’t read it, they could end up with a funky pacemaker that doesn’t work … and die.””

Laughton pointed to another scenario of a bank sending out information on new mortgage rates that’s not accessible to disabled people. “”Blind folks who own a home don’t know they can get a better rate”” and are left out of the loop, she said.

Since Laughton started working on online accessibility issues some 15 years ago, awareness has grown. But it has taken a lot of education and repetitive pleas on behalf of her office.

She recalled debating with Industry Canada’s Strategis Web staff.

“”We said we have to make (online resources) more accessible. The answer was, ‘But we’re dealing with company presidents, why do we have to have that?’ I said, ‘How about these 17 company presidents who are blind that I can name to you without giving it two seconds thought?””

Canada has been making significant strides to use technology to serve the needs of the visually impaired. Last month the Canadian National Institute for the Blind unveiled what it called the world’s largest online digital library for the blind, as well as a “”discovery portal”” for visually impaired children.

Mary-Jo Monk, senior advisor at the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario, said she has ensured all departments within the Ontario Government are in compliance with a new section of the Ontario Disabilities Act (ODA). Section 6 of the act came into effect in Dec. 31, 2002, subjecting all government Web sites to more stringent accessibility standards. The section serves to strengthen existing obligations under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

“”There was a lot of work done in terms of repairing and remediating Web sites (in preparation for the proclamation date),”” recalled Monk, who presented Understanding Accessibility Laws and their Effect on the Development and Design of Your Web Site at the conference.

For example, ALT text was built into complex data tables of financial information. “”This made is possible for each data cell to be associated with all the correct headers, telling the user about such things as GNP contribution from interest on electricity taxes,”” said Alan Cantor, president of Cantor & Associates and Monk’s co-presenter.

The revamp of the ODA “”sent a real message to the vendor community,”” added Monk. “”Private-sector contractors have received the message that they need to be knowledgeable and provide services that encompass accessibility issues.””

For Laughton’s part, she is comfortable with “”the level of accessibility that’s being promised”” by the federal government’s GOL initiative. The Government On-Line Advisory Panel met Wednesday and is expected to recommend that TBS increase spending on GOL initiatives.

As well, prime-minister-in-waiting Paul Martin is a promoter of online access, she added.

“”When I started talking about this 15 years ago, if there were two people in the audience I was jumping up and down for joy. (Today) there were a whole lot of people in that room that I had never seen before,”” she said, referring to the presentation venue. “”So we’re making some progress.””


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