Ontario legal deadlines are nearing for accessible communications – are your documents ready?

The Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation (IASR) deadlines on communication supports for the visually impaired are fast approaching for Canadian firms operating in Ontario. We need to address that, says senior product manager, Phil Roberts, of customer communications software firm Actuate. What approach – manual versus automated – should an organization take to deliver accessible versions of their PDF communications?

Prior to the latter part of the 20th century, people with disabilities weren’t considered able to participate in society in the same manner as those without disabilities. This has radically changed (albeit slowly) in the last forty years, and justly so.

In 1977, the Government of Canada passed into law the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA), which prohibits discrimination of people on grounds of, among other things, their physical or cognitive disabilities. Protections provided through this act were aimed primarily at branches of the Federal Government and federally regulated institutions. The Act was reinforced and made more broadly applicable with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which was introduced in 1982 as an integral part of the Constitution of Canada.

More than a decade later, in 1993, the first World Wide Web Browser – Mosaic – was released, triggering an explosion digital content via the Web. Fast forward to 2014, and virtually all branches of Canadian Government, and most educational institutions, corporations and other firms have some degree of visual presence on this vast digital superhighway. It is extremely rare to find an organization that doesn’t do at least some of its business online.

However, despite the emergence of the Web coinciding with the shift in the way people with disabilities are treated, technology did not evolve with full consideration of accessibility for visually impaired individuals. The Web is plagued with sites that are simply unusable to people who must employ assistive technologies – such as digital screen readers – to help them navigate its vast body of knowledge.

The solution: Mandated accessibility of online documents and content for the visually impaired.

To remedy this, in 2001 the Government of Canada issued a standard for all Web content that is known as the Common Look and Feel (CLF), which was a step in the right direction. Disappointingly, in 2007 when the Treasury Board audited 47 federal departments, it found no compliance. Further, the frustration felt by the visually impaired community made its way into public awareness that year, when visually impaired Toronto resident Donna Jodhan sued the Government of Canada over its inaccessible websites.

Jodhan won her case in 2010, with the court asserting that the Government must meet their obligations to provide accessible content – a victory upheld by Canada’s Federal Court of Appeal in 2012.

In another proactive government effort, in 2010 Ontario introduced the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation (IASR) under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) of 2005. This regulation sets out specific requirements and timelines for addressing accessibility in electronic information and communications, of which the Web is a very big part.

The IASR defines “communications” as “the interaction between two or more persons or entities, or any combination of them, where information is provided, sent or received.” These are documents such as customer account statements, utility bills, explanations of benefits, bills of sale, tax receipts and assessments, and so on, provided to individuals engaged in commercial or civic relationships with government, and organizations in the public and private sectors.

These relationships certainly qualify as interactions between two parties for the exchange of information. They are, in fact, communications.

Additionally, with the increasing concern over the environmental impacts of often-excessive waste produced by our modern society, and motivated by the desire to reduce deforestation and the accumulation of garbage in municipal landfills that make growing sections of our landscape unusable for anything more suitable, many such organizations have introduced services to provide paperless communications.

The paperless versions of documents are typically produced as digital Portable Document Format (PDF) documents, which are designed to appear on the screen much in the same way as the printed version appears on paper. As a pleasant side effect, not only do paperless statements eliminate the costs of stationery, printing and postal delivery of their printed counterparts, but PDFs can also serve as a means to deliver Accessible content to the visually-impaired more efficiently and cheaply than printed Braille or spoken-word audio CDs when produced correctly.

However, the vast majority of PDF documents produced and made available online are still, today, inaccessible to the visually impaired population. These online documents lack features such as proper digital tagging, reading order guidance, and meaningful alternative text for images, and other features which would make them usable for persons with disabilities, and make them accessible to the digital screen readers used by these individuals. In other words, these PDFs lack built-in “communication supports” to enable reliable and usable interaction with assistive technologies.

First deadlines for digital document remediation

Importantly, the IASR (mentioned above) established a mandated timeline for all organizations to provide communication supports for the visually impaired, and these deadlines are fast approaching. The Ontario Government itself has already been on the hook to provide them since January 1st of 2014. These obligations are due to extend to large public sector organizations in the beginning of 2015, and to small public sector organizations and large private organizations (with 50 or more employees) by January 1, 2016. The deadline for small private organizations comes a year later, by the start of 2017. Now is the time to start addressing this issue in order to meet the deadlines and avoid penalties for non-compliance.

Manual or automated remediation: which is right for your organization?

There are currently two methods available to meet regulatory requirements: manual remediation and automated remediation.

Manual remediation has been the approach of choice for many organizations. This approach involves sending documents to Accessibility service providers who painstakingly tag and convert documents into accessible formats such as tagged PDF, Braille, large print or spoken-word audio.

Though the manual remediation approaches involve low up-front costs to set up, they are labour-intensive, and therefore expensive when it comes to the costs of actual document conversion. Because of this high cost, organizations often provide this service on an “opt-in” basis. However, this forces people with disabilities to disclose their disability to these organizations in order to receive accessible communication formats, a requirement that crosses the privacy boundary.

Privacy matters aside, delays in manual processes arguably can be seen as “adversely differentiating,” something that is prohibited under the Canadian Human Rights Act. This is especially so when communications are of a time-sensitive nature. However, with a cost of anywhere from $5 to $35 per page – or more – to manually remediate inaccessible documents, organizations may determine that universally providing accessible formats is cost-prohibitive.

Fortunately, today, there are automated options to provide accessible document remediation. Automated remediation solutions employ enterprise-class software to automate much of the manual effort. They can deliver accessible formats in significantly less time and with much lower cost, making them suitable for providing accessible content in an inclusive manner, removing the privacy concerns of “opt-in” programs.

Automated remediation software works by using a template to convert the original document into an accessible format. The template is designed to capture all document content elements, in the correct reading order, and with rules to maximize usability. Templates can handle a number of scenarios including a varying number of pages, variable table sizes, multiple-column layouts and personalized promotional images. Developing a template involves some up-front cost for each document type to be converted, but this cost is relatively small, and includes template development, testing and deployment into production systems.

An organization can choose to apply this template to convert all of their documents to accessible formats, or they can integrate the software into their web portals to convert documents on-the-fly when requested with little impact to the end-user experience. In either case, the visually-impaired customer receives a fully accessible PDF document that works with their screen reader.
Additionally, the process of marking up enterprise documents to create accessible and usable PDFs applies additional structure to their content. This structure may then be used in the production of alternate formats such as Braille, large print and spoken-word audio, removing much of the manual effort required to analyze content and hence cutting conversion costs.
Options for Accessible communications for all Canadians

Manual approaches may be the right choice when an organization’s communications do not follow standardized document templates that are produced in batches. However, when documents are produced based on a template, such as an account statement, these documents are more appropriately remediated using automated remediation solutions.

Automating document remediation allows organizations and government bodies to save money, comply with legislative requirements and avoid costly legal action, all while providing a much needed, and ethically appropriate service to a segment of Canadians previously under-served.

If you haven’t already done so, start researching your document accessibility options today, since these mandatory compliance deadlines are looming. With typical timelines of successful enterprise IT software implementations being upwards of a year or more from needs analysis to full functionality, now is the time to start planning your compliance efforts.

The author is Phil Roberts, Senior Product Manager at Actuate Corporation (NASDAQ: BIRT) – the producers of the Actuate Accessibility Appliance™ software – part of the Actuate Customer Communications Suite™.

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