[Content Note: Not all of the links I have included in this piece have comments, but many of them do, and those comments are basically full of "Stupid disabled people wasting everyone's time and energy by wanting the world to treat them like human beings" comments.]
If you’ve been following Canadian politics this week, you could very easily come away with the impression that the most significant – or perhaps even the only – thing going on with this week’s opening of the Federal Parliament was the Gun Registry Vote.
That there’s a federal court Charter challenge brought forth by Donna Jodhan arguing that blind Canadians are being discriminated against by the Federal Government for refusing to make their website content accessible to screen readers is not really getting a lot of attention. (Cripples these days! It’s like they don’t sell papers/make page views.)
A little bit of background information first. Canada has a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which went into effect in 1982 and is the Thing against which laws and the like must be “tested” in order to be considered actually legal in Canada. To give some lovely controversial rulings, the reason Canada has no abortion law is because it was found to violate the Charter’s guarantee to security of the person (and no law has since been passed) and it was found that refusing to include “homosexuals” in protections against discrimination violated Section 15, or the right to Equal Protection Before the Law, even though sexual orientation wasn’t included in Section 15.
Section 15 is the important one here:
15. (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.
(2) Subsection (1) does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.
Now, I Am Not A Lawyer, and it’s been about 10 years since I studied the Charter, so I’m going to leave that out there and not discuss my personal interpretations because they don’t matter. What matters is two things: 1) What the court says and 2) That the Federal Government is arguing that they shouldn’t have to be accessible to screen readers in court.
The latter is, of course, being read as Jodhan wasting tax payers money in a frivolous lawsuit, not the Federal Government for refusing to have accessible content.
From what I can tell, this is what’s going on: In 2004, Jodhan attempted to apply for government jobs online. However, the site wasn’t set up to allow screen-readers to access the site, so she was unable to do so. In 2006, she attempted to fill her Census out online, and again, the federal government website was not accessible to her screen reader.
On Tuesday [September 21], Jodhan will argue in federal court that her inability to apply for a position on the federal jobs website or complete the online version of the 2006 Census breached her equality rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
She will also argue that this violation and her ongoing inability to access the government’s online information and services constitute a breach against all blind and partially sighted Canadians, said Jodhan’s lawyer David Baker.
About 3 million Canadians have visual or other impairments that make it difficult to access the Internet.
The Federal Government is, in turn, is responding with “What, you think you should have a right to access the same information that everyone else can? Ha ha! Ha ha!”:
Internet access to government services and information is not a right guaranteed in law, the government says in its written submission to the court.
“Alternative channels available did allow (Jodhan) to access services and information independently, in a manner that respected her privacy and dignity,” it says.
With more than 120 government departments and agencies and more than 23 million web pages, “it is unlikely that the government’s web presence will ever be perfectly accessible to all,” it adds.
Frankly, if the Federal Government doesn’t think that their websites provide information in a timely fashion, and that access to that information isn’t something that they should prioritize, why are they bothering with them in the first place? And if they do think it’s important, why are they in essence arguing that “It’s important for most people, but not for the three million Canadians who won’t be able to access it?”
I support Donna Jodhan’s fight for equality of access to information for all Canadians. I hope you do, too. If so, I strongly encourage you to email your Member of Parliament and let them know. Perhaps if enough of us contact the government and let them know we value accessibility for Canadians with disabilities, they’ll start acting like we shouldn’t have to go to court just to get it.
This is the email I sent to my MP, who happens to be Megan Leslie, and cc:ed to the leader of the NDP. Please feel free to adapt it to send to your own MP. (This should give you their email address.)
I recently learned of Donna Jodhan’s Federal Court case, arguing that the Canadian Government must provide screen-reader accessible content on their websites, as reported in the Toronto Star (http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/article/863379–blind-woman-says-federal-websites-discriminate-against-the-visually-impaired) and the CBC (http://www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2010/09/18/to-blind-accessible-feds.html) In light both Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and Canada’s recent signing of the Declaration of Rights of Disabled Persons, I’m appalled that the Federal Government would waste tax payers’ dollars in arguing that 3 million Canadians should not have the ability to access government services online or apply for government jobs online.
In this day and age, it’s ridiculous for the government to argue that access to the internet is not necessary. According to the Toronto Star, government lawyers are arguing “Internet access to government services and information is not a right guaranteed in law”. While I agree that this is technically true, in refusing to provide this access, the government is arguing that blind and visually impaired Canadians should have less access to government services and information than Canadians who are sighted.
Megan, every day it is clearer to me how many societal barriers are put in place that prevent people with disabilities in Canada from full participation. The time and energy the federal government is frivolously spending in defending their lack of web accessibility could be far better put to use in bringing the government’s websites up to the same standards as those in other countries, standards that are reasonable to expect in the 21st Century.
This is such an important issue, and I hope that the NDP will work to bring awareness of it to Canadians, and encourage the federal government to stop fighting against people with disabilities, but fighting for them.
cc: Jack Layton