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A Long and Arduous Journey: the Fight for Equality in Canada and Worldwide

By Donna Jodhan.

In 2000 I embarked on a journey to encourage the Canadian Government to work with blind Canadians to make their websites more accessible to all Canadians. At that time, my main objective was to raise awareness of the inaccessibility of government websites, and to convince officials of the importance of making their websites fully accessible as soon as possible.

I started my mission by taking my concerns to various departmental heads within the government and my presentations focused on the importance of making information fully accessible to all Canadians. I focused specifically on the fact that we are now living in an information society and a knowledge-based economy and blind Canadians, like everyone else, needed immediate access to information to make vital everyday decisions that affected such things as our health, safety, security and social welfare.

By making websites more accessible they could enable blind Canadians to read, download and to respond to information independently and without sighted assistance, thus protecting their right to privacy and confidentiality. To this end, I told the civil servants they needed to give their website developers the tools to make website content accessible and readable to blind persons, to produce files in alternate formats, and to provide training to support staff to be of assistance to blind Canadians. I also told them about the benefits to all Canadians if websites were to be made fully accessible.

Where could they find the necessary expertise to accomplish all this? Through the advice and assistance of blind testers and users along with guidance from accessibility experts, both nationally and internationally.

By 2004, however, I was struggling to make much headway, and I had come to the conclusion that to have any effect on the Canadian Government, my one-person mission would have to be expanded to include support from other blind Canadians, as well as from organisations of and for blind people. My challenge was not just inaccessible websites, but a deep-seated attitude that did not understand why blind Canadians needed to have equal access to information.

Eventually, this mission turned into a legal battle, triggered in particular after Statistics Canada refused to consider my job application on an equal footing to mainstream applicants, citing among its reasons that it was going to be too costly to produce exams in Braille or in an electronic format.

The legal battle began in full in 2007 after I had consulted with David Baker and his team at disability and human rights specialist lawyers Bakerlaw, and with Jutta Treviranus, a leading international accessibility expert and director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD [Ontario College of Art and Design] University in Toronto.  I was extremely fortunate to have obtained funding under a Court Challenges Program just before funding to it was cut in July 2007. The basis for my case was a violation of my rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights; unequal access to information.

For the next five years, my lawyers and I, along with our accessibility experts, battled doggedly to keep our case alive as the government battled just as determinedly to have it thrown out of court. I received support from thousands of Canadians, both blind and sighted, and from individuals and organisations around the world. An online petition was launched by the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians and we gathered more than 500 signatures. Press coverage extended from Canada to the US and well beyond, including TV, radio, newspaper and internet coverage.

In 2010 I won a landmark victory, as the lower Federal Court ruled in my favour, stating that the Canadian Government had indeed violated my rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights. The government appealed but lost round two of the battle in 2012 when the Canadian Court of Appeal again ruled in my favour; three judges having handed down a unanimous decision.

That was the end of that episode of my story, but since then, matters have moved on even further.

The Canadian Government has been mandated to make all of their websites fully accessible but no time limit has been put on them to do this. A few weeks ago the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians received an invitation from the government to have its members test their websites and I believe that this is a step in the right direction.

Many have asked why I embarked on such a long and arduous journey, and my response is that I did it for all blind Canadians, but especially for blind kids, as I truly believe I am obliged to make their future a better one than mine. I owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who has helped and supported me, with special mention to the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, of which I was the president from 2011-13.

Finally, it is my hope that this project will remain a continual work in progress: so thanks too to everyone who has yet to join in but might read this and work out how to help in future.

NOTE: Donna Jodhan’s blog, Advocating Accessibility for All, is at:
http://donnajodhan.blogspot.co.uk/ .
And you can follow past coverage of her legal battle in E-Access Bulletin at: http://bit.ly/14VnOdU .

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