Canadian businesses face a January 1, 2021 deadline to make all internet websites and web content more accessible, and experts are urging Canadian businesses to take a hard look at their web presence and take the deadline seriously.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) requires organizations with 20 or more employees to file a compliance audit* before this deadline. AODA will require Canadian businesses in Ontario to meet web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG 2.0) Level AA other than criteria 1.2.4 (live captions) and 1.2.5 (pre-recorded audio descriptions).

Canada scores a 64 overall out of 100, according to the World Accessibility Map, an online resource that allows users to compare the web accessibility level of countries around the world. Retail and tourism, and hospitality score the lowest at 60 each. Healthcare scored the highest at 68, followed closely by education and government.

“We’ve been working with clients from all of these sectors over the last couple of years, and to be frank, we aren’t surprised to see retail rank the lowest,” says Mike Cart, managing director at Siteimprove Canada, a cloud-based digital presence optimization software company. “Creating a Canada where everyone can participate fully without barriers is long overdue — and not just in the physical sense. We’re just starting to see companies and industries wake up to the fact that all Canadians deserve equal access to websites and digital platforms.”

 

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The U.S. average score is 67 on the World Accessibility Map, slightly higher than Canada, but still not great. By sector in the U.S., government and financial services scored highest at 71, with manufacturing and healthcare finishing at the bottom with scores of 63 each.

“Unless you consciously include, you will unconsciously exclude,” said Ricardo Wagner, accessibility lead at Microsoft Canada, in an emailed response. “The shift from physical interactions to virtual connections has become the new normal, and with nearly a billion people (15 per cent of the world’s population) with some form of disability, it is critical that we collectively ensure our interactions are accessible. There are no limits to what people can achieve when they have the right technology, tools and opportunity.”

Based on Siteimprove’s digital accessibility handbook, organizations can begin making their websites more accessible by using consistent design across their site, choosing colour wisely (high contrast can help visually impaired users), ensuring users can navigate the site without the use of a mouse (using only the keyboard), including proper page headings to help situate users, and providing the option for text to be read aloud.

Today, artificial intelligence (AI) plays a critical role in improving digital accessibility, as it brings a multi-sense opportunity with a range of cognitive services that can be integrated into any application. By leveraging speech to text and automated captioning technologies, which have become mainstream thanks to AI, content producers and platform owners can ensure that their videos are accessible for people with visual and hearing disabilities. Similarly, the computer vision API can help generate automatic alt-text for images. Ontario has also defined how new or significantly updated websites can be made accessible to people with disabilities.

The AODA is important legislation for 22 per cent of Canadians, or 6.2 million people, who have at least one disability and often find themselves confronted with inaccessible websites and web content, says Jonathan Zaleski, senior director of engineering and head of labs at the software testing company Applause.

The upcoming digital accessibility deadline is going to impact businesses in significant ways, said Zaleski. “Employment lawyer Doug MacLeod recently told the Toronto Star his client would be subject to a $50,000 fine for each day the organization did not comply with AODA. This shows both how seriously the government is taking digital accessibility, and how important it is for businesses to get AODA right, especially during today’s precarious economic environment. There is also the threat of bad publicity for brands that are found to not provide an accessible experience. The potential impacts to a company’s image and wallet are likely to force brands to make AODA a priority.”

The AODA was enacted in 2005 to make the province of Ontario fully accessible to people with disabilities by 2025.

* Information about filing a compliance report can be found here.
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