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Conquering the website accessibility divide

By Donna Jodhan.

There is the digital divide and then there is the technology divide. Now I’d like to add the website accessibility divide to this list.

The ‘website accessibility divide’ refers to those of us who are unable to access websites due to navigable and usability reasons, versus those who do not have any difficulty accessing websites.

The former group often describes those of us who are visually impaired, and for me, as one who falls into this category, I can tell you that it makes a huge difference in my personal life whenever I am unable to do things such as: access information independently and in privacy; complete forms on my own; request information without having to ask for sighted help; download and read documents without having to ask for sighted assistance; read content on a website on my own.

On a personal level, inaccessible and unusable websites have a direct affect on my life. My ability to protect and maintain my confidentiality, independence and privacy are all affected. In short, I often have no alternative but to place all of this in the hands of strangers if I am unable to find a friend or family member that I trust to assist me.

For me and others like me, we are all in the same boat, so to speak. We cannot have access to vital information if we are unable to access websites independently. We cannot make vital decisions on our own behalf if we are unable to read information for ourselves in an independent manner.

For example: important information pertaining to such things as public safety, security, health, job and financial markets, social programs, and up-to-the-minute news are often beyond our reach, because of the website accessibility divide.

This is the main reason why I launched a charter challenge against the Canadian Government in 2006 – because their websites were inaccessible to me and to other blind Canadians. I could not apply for a job through their websites on my own, and access to vital information was horribly lacking.

Yes! True it is that we won a landmark victory that mandated the Canadian Government to make all of their websites accessible, and true it is that things have improved in a noticeable way, but there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to this.

Canada does not have any sort of legislation in place that mandates and penalises federally regulated companies and agencies if their websites are not accessible to Canadians with vision impairments. As a result, inaccessible and unusable websites continue to be a part of the lives of those Canadians with vision impairments.

We, as visually impaired Canadians, continue to live at the whim of website developers who do not believe that website accessibility and usability are important enough for them to include in their design, and this is why I personally decided to take one more step.

In early 2015, I, along with a small group, launched Barrier Free Canada – Canada sans Barrières; a non-partisan grassroots organisation whose main objective is to lobby the Canadian Government to pass a Canadians with Disabilities Act. During the October 2015 Canadian election campaign, three parties committed to passing such legislation, including the governing Liberal Party lead by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

This new government has committed two million dollars towards this initiative in its most recent budget. This is good news for us! We are now waiting on the minister responsible for disabilities issues to commence public hearings, as part of the process to pass a Canadians with Disabilities Act. It is our cherished hope that such an act can be passed in time for Canada’s 150th anniversary on the first day of July, 2017.

As it stands now, the majority of Canada’s new Parliament supports the passage of a Canadians with Disabilities Act, so that is one major hurdle that has been overcome. Now comes the more difficult task of actually getting the act drafted and placed before the Canadian Parliament.

It is my personal dream that some day soon, all Canadians will be able to access websites independently, and in doing so be able to protect their privacy and confidentiality. This should not be a dream, because under the Canadian Charter of Rights, all Canadians are guaranteed equal access to information. Yet I can only continue to dream – for myself, for all Canadians who are visually impaired, but most of all, for our children of the future.

As Robert F. Kennedy, paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw, once said: “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’; I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’” Maybe I should be a bit more realistic, but in my heart I know that somewhere over the rainbow I will some day realise my dream.

I promised Steve Jobs to help change the world and I will keep this promise, because he kept his promise to us.

Find out more about Barrier-Free Canada at the following link: http://eab.li/15

Read more about Donna Jodhan at her website: http://eab.li/14 .

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