Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Government Websites Must Be Accessible, Court Finds

The Federal Court of Appeal has ordered Ottawa to make its websites accessible to blind people.

The decision is a second victory for plaintiff Donna Jodhan. The blind Toronto woman launched her lawsuit after discovering she could neither complete the 2006 census nor apply for a government job online.

The problem was that federal websites weren’t programmed to operate with screen reading software that converts text into speech. Ms. Jodhan, who is an accessibility consultant, claimed her right to equality under Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was denied as a result. The government’s defence was that the same information was available by other means such as mail, telephone or in person.

The Federal Court agreed that Ms. Jodhan had been discriminated against and ruled the government is obliged to ensure websites are fully accessible. The three-judge panel noted that the Internet is “one of the most, if not the most important tools ever designed for accessing not only government information and services, but all types of information and services.”

Advocacy groups for the visually impaired welcome the decision.

“It’s unfortunate that someone had to go to these ends to attain what is a fundamental right,” says CNIB president and CEO John Rafferty, “However, we are pleased by the court ruling that upholds the constitutional obligation of the government to ensure Canadians who are blind or partially sighted have equal access to information, enabling them to be independent, productive members of society.”

John Rae, past president of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians says “It’s now time for the government to stop fighting against the Blind community and comply with their obligations to make all of its websites fully accessible.”

A spokesperson for the federal minister responsible, Treasury Board president Tony Clement, says Ottawa is committed to web accessibility and to date over 100 government institutions are converting their content in line with the web content accessibility guidelines.