Today Justice Michael Kelen of the Federal Court handed down a significant decision in DONNA JODHAN v. ATTORNEY GENERAL OF CANADA. Ms Jodhan sought a declaration under section 18.1 of the Federal Courts Act that the standards implemented by the federal government for providing visually impaired Canadians with access to government information and services on the Internet, and the way in which those standards are implemented, denied her equal access to government information and services, and thereby violated her rights under section 15(1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
She had made three complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission against the Treasury Board of Canada, Secretariat, Statistics Canada and the Public Service Commission of Canada. The complaints had a common element: the alleged inaccessibility of government websites for the visually impaired. An earlier motion before Prothonatory Kevin Aalto was reported here.
Despite her extensive technological training — she won four awards from IBM for technical initiatives — Ms. Jodhan found herself relying on sighted individuals to help her navigate the sites or on government employees to provide accurate information in a timely manner, she said in an affidavit. Many blind people use screen readers, computer software that translates electronic text into audio. But the readers aren’t foolproof — for one thing, most can’t decipher PDF files, a format often used to publish documents online.
In 2001 the government adopted a web standard known as the Common Look and Feel Standard, which requires government department websites to be designed and programmed to ensure they can be accessed by visually impaired users. The Treasury Board conducted a spot audit of 47 of the 146 federal departments in 2007 and found that none complied with the standard. No follow-up information was presented in court.
The federal government’s chief information officer, Ken Cochrane, told the court each department was responsible for implementing the standard. The court ruled that Ottawa must update the standard to make interactive applications such as the government’s ePass web portal accessible.
David Baker’s Press Release states:
Donna Jodhan wins landmark case against federal government to fix inaccessible websites
Canada to join ranks of nations that have adopted web accessibility standards
Toronto – November 29, 2010 – Today the Federal Court of Canada released a landmark decision concerning the right of Canadians with disabilities to access government websites.
Justice Kelen has ruled that Canada’s federal government must deliver key websites in a useable format for blind and partially-sighted Canadians. Canada will now be joining with numerous other countries – such as the United States, Australia and EU member states – that have already made their federal websites accessible. The tools and standards for building accessible websites are inexpensive and widely available to web developers.
“This is a victory not just for me personally but for the blind community of Canada,” said Jodhan, who is legally blind, of the decision. “At the same time, I want to stress that this is not about us versus them. It’s a call for everyone to work together to do what we need to do.”
Justice Kelen declared that Ms Jodhan’s inability to access certain government websites is representative of a system wide failure by government departments and agencies to make their websites accessible, and that the government’s failure to monitor and ensure compliance with its own accessibility standards violates the equality guarantee in the Charter. He declared that the government has a constitutional obligation to bring itself into compliance with the Charter within a “reasonable time period, such as 15 months.”
“The web has become a crucial channel through which the government of Canada delivers information and services to its citizens,” said David Baker, Jodhan’s lead counsel on the case. “Today the court recognized that there is no excuse for arbitrarily shutting people out of key services, especially when the tools to fix the situation are readily available and inexpensive.”
Accessible websites obey simple authoring rules and include hidden tags that label information so that it can be properly organized by the screen readers, which blind web surfers use to convert text to new formats such as audible speech. Without these basic markers, screen readers garble the information on pages and forms, making them impossible to use.
Ms. Jodhan first launched her case in 2006, after struggling to access government sites and hearing that others were having similar problems. She eventually resorted to legal action, she says, because it was the only way to get the government to pay attention to the problem. The government attempted to have the case thrown out on technical grounds, but hearings eventually went forward on September 21-23 of this year.
Now that a verdict has been reached, Ms. Jodhan says she hopes that the government will consult both blind people and technology experts to ensure that the changes are made in an effective way. “Hopefully the government will see it as an opportunity for everyone to pull together to make things better,” she said.