Last call to comment on Ontario

A new standard that requires all businesses and organizations in Ontario to provide accessible information, including that transmited through IT systems, to persons with disabilities will be proposed to the Government of Ontario tomorrow.

Ontario residents concerned about the impending law have only one day left to review the proposal and suggest amendments.

The proposed standard addresses all types of communication methods – spoken word, text on paper, electronic message, etc. – and intends to remove barriers for individuals with vision, mobility, hearing and understanding disabilities.

Released for public review on November 17, the proposed Accessible Information and Communications Standard is the third standard released under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA 2005).

AODA aims to build accessibility into all products, services and systems in Ontario by 2025. The first standard, which mandates accessible customer service, came into effect in January 2008.

Accessible information and communications – which includes everything from the prepared and predictable (brochures and order forms) to the unprepared and unpredictable (help requests and medical test results) – are expected to be updated regularly and provided to disabled persons at no extra charge.

If the proposed standard is finalized into law, compliance will be expected from the public sector by 2010 and the private sector by 2012.

“All businesses and organizations in Ontario that provide goods or services to the public and have at least one employee would have to comply with the standard, once it comes into effect,” states the proposal in brief. “This includes private businesses, non-profit organizations, provincial and municipal governments, universities, colleges, hospitals and school boards.”

While requirements vary depending on the size and type of organization, the following obligations (as outlined in the brief) would become mandatory for everyone:

• Inform persons with disabilities that there is accessible information and communication available;

• Charge no more for alternate accessible formats than the regular cost paid by other consumers;

• Ensure that individuals with disabilities are not disadvantaged in terms of the timeliness, quality and availability of communication, given or received;

• Establish a user request, feedback and complaints process that allows persons with disabilities (whether they are consumers or employees) to identify their comunication needs and to communicate with the organization;

• Provide emergency and public safety information required under existing law (e.g., evacuation procedures) to the public and employees in formats and communication methods that can be used and understood by persons with disabilities;

• Develop, implement and maintain policies, procedures and practices to comply with the standard for accessible information and communications and write a statement of commitment to accessibility;

• Ensure that employees, volunteers and others who are responsible for designing or providing and receiving information and communication on behalf of the organization receive accessibility training.

The proposed standard could have a huge impact on IT systems, which might require Web site overhauls, re-designed user interfaces, new software applications and voice response systems.

“In order for Enterprise Systems to comply, there would have to be very precise definitions of what is to be included,” said Dylan Persaud, research manager of Enterprise Applications at IDC Canada.

Unanswered questions include whether the systems will be available through the government and if so, what guidelines will be provided to collaborate and share information systems with organizations for the disabled, Persaud pointed out.

“For instance, if braille is to be included for the blind, what facilities will the software vendors need to take and also how would they go about controlling security at the enterprise level?”

Other factors likely to affect Ontario’s IT community, according to Persaud, include compliance penalties and methods of enforcement.

“Persons or organizations to which an accessibility standard applies will be required to comply with the standard within the time period set out in the standard, self-certify that they are in compliance with the standard and file an accessibility report (on an annual basis or as requested) with a Director appointed by the Deputy Minister for this purpose, and make the report available to the public,” said Christopher Tidey, Communications and Marketing Branch, Ministry of Community and Social Services.

Inspections may be carried out and an administrative penalty may be ordered if the Director finds a person or organization has failed to comply with the standard or regulations, Tidey explained.

Security would be a key issue, added Persaud, such as how to handle the actual information that is being stored/exchanged/manipulated. “Corporate IT would have to handle this as a new user policy, which I think may possibly complicate the security administration layer depending on medium of input,” he said.

Implications for business enterprise systems are outlined in the brief as follows:

• Once the standard is in effect, any newly acquired business enterprise systems must provide accessible formats and methods of communication when they are made available for use by employees or the public.

• If, at the time of the standard taking effect, an organization has already invested in a system or signed a contract for a new system (but hasn’t started using it with employees or the public), it will have three years to comply with accessibility requirements.

• For existing systems, organizations have to meet the requirements for accessibility at the time of system update and no later than within six years of the standard coming into effect. User interfaces and data formats must be compliant by 2012.

A letter from the AODA Alliance disability consumer advocacy group to Madeleine Meilleur, Ontario Minister of Community and Social Services, providing feedback on the proposed standard is available online.

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