Empowering the disabled with Web accessibility

Ever tried watching a Webcast without the speakers on? How about surfing the Internet with the monitor switched off?

The absence – from an Internet surfing session – of sight, sound, or any of the other features we take so much for granted could entirely ruin that experience for us.

But that’s precisely what more than three million Canadians, who suffer from disabilities, have to contend with each time they access the Web.

While Section 15 of the Charter makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of disability, there is currently no law in Canada that mandates Web accessibility to private Web site owners, according to Mary-Frances Laughton, director of Industry Canada’s Assistive Devices Office.

“[They’re two] different things: the Charter says it’s illegal to [discriminate], but there is no law that says you must make your [Web] site accessible,” Laughton said.

Nevertheless, people with disabilities who feel they are discriminated against by an inaccessible Web site covered under federal regulations – banking, telecom, broadcast, inter-provincial transport – can file a complaint before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

This is why Industry Canada’s Assistive Devices Office works with the private sector, such as telecom companies and banking institutions, encouraging them to enhance the accessibility of their products, systems and services, Laughton said.

Web accessibility means making the Internet usable for more people, regardless of their disability. For instance, adding descriptive text to a Web site would allow visually impaired individuals to get information from the site using screen reader software such as Linux-based Emacspeak or IBM Via Voice.

Laughton also expressed doubts that Canada would enact any legislation mandating Web accessibility among private Web site owners.

The director is also co-chair of the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative, which sets standards for making a Web site accessible to people with disabilities.

Currently, Government of Canada sites are required to have Web accessibility features under the Common Look and Feel for the Internet (CLF) policy. The level of accessibility must be compliant with W3C’s Priority 1 and 2 checkpoints under the consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

The guidelines provide levels of conformance for Web accessibility. Priority 1 prescribes the most basic features of accessibility. Depending on the kind of market a Web site is trying to reach, the levels may vary from site to site.

The UK, Australia and France are pioneering Web accessibility initiatives through domestic legislation. In these countries, Web site owners are mandated to provide a level of Web accessibility, according to Valerie Brown, vice-president for knowledge management at WSI, a Toronto-based Internet consulting firm.

WSI is offering Web accessibility as an option to clients building a Web site.

“When serving our clients, we come to them with the latest information like accessibility, making sure that if there is legislation that they need to abide by, that we can build that for them. Or, if there is no [accessibility] legislation, at least help them understand that it is coming and that at certain point we may have to build or upgrade their Web site to be accessible,” Brown said.

Putting Web accessibility at the build stage would also help bring down the cost, according to Brown. But adding it to the existing site would not necessarily entail a significant expense, depending on the level of accessibility a client would like to attain.

“It could be as simple as just [adding] additional pages,” Brown said.

For many organizations, said Brown, the type of market clients or stakeholders intend to reach would also dictate accessibility parameters. For instance, a site that serves senior citizens should accommodate disabilities such as visual or hearing impairment, she said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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