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Creating New Barriers

The OHRC, in the Ontario Regulatory Registry Proposal: 10-CSS002, October 15, 2010 raised a number of concerns about the proposed AODA Integrated Accessibility Regulation (IAR), but seven years later in 2017, we again need to echo those same concerns. Section 9 (2) of the AODA requires the standards development process to determine the long-term accessibility objectives, but seems to have failed in Dealing with existing barriers, and stopping the creation of new barriers, which is an immediate legal duty and therefore should be a short-term objective. If we are to meet the Ontario goal of a barrier-free society by 2025, the AODA standards must prohibit the creation of any new barriers immediately.

According to the OHRC report the proposed IAR fails to identify basic human rights principles to guide its overall interpretation that include:

  • Designing inclusively,
  • Refraining from creating new barriers,
  • Identifying and removing existing barriers,
  • Favouring integration over segregation,
  • Considering and accommodating individual requests short of undue hardship, and
  • Involving persons with disabilities in exploring solutions through a cooperative process.

The standards should follow the key human rights principle of not permitting organizations to create new barriers, and existing barriers must be addressed now, not later. The OHRC policy and human rights case law is clear: avoidance of new barriers is an immediate obligation. As organizations strive, through the AODA standards, to meet the challenge of Ontario’s barrier free for persons with disabilities goal by 2025, we look to government for leadership in guidance.

The Four Core Accessibility Principles of the AODA provide this guidance:

  1. Dignity - Each person is able to maintain privacy, self-respect and the respect of others and is provided with the same service, quality and convenience as others.
  2. Equity of Outcome - Each person has the same chances, options, benefits and results as others.
  3. Independence - Each person is able to do things on their own without unnecessary help or interference from others.
  4. Integration - Each person is able to participate in the activities of the organization in the same or similar way as others.

Kathleen Wynne, Premier of Ontario, September 2016 Digital Government Mandate letter of instructions to The Honourable Deborah Matthews, Minister Responsible for Digital Government, does not mention the importance of accessible digital communications for blind Ontarians. With a focus on implementing the Ontario economic growth plan, the goal is to forge partnerships with all Ontarians to make a genuine, positive difference in people’s lives. The mandate letter states that collaboration and active listening remain at the heart of the work, which includes values that ensure a common purpose, stimulate positive change and help achieve desired outcomes. However, those persons who can benefit the most from accessible digital communications have been excluded from the Ontario Digital Government Initiative action plan.

Activities: Digital Government Action Plan

1. Change In Action

The province of Ontario 2016 Budget announced the Ontario digital government initiative and committed to developing a Digital Government Action Plan. The Plan contains priorities identifying the high-impact digital projects and services that are to be transformed into easy to use online digital services and replacing the traditional methods of service delivery. A new digital government startup team was established to drive transformation, organization-wide. This work will include bringing in-demand digital talent into government and working with ministries to re-engineer current business practices and processes to improve online interactions for users. However, it appears the digital team has no Accessibility core skills, no disability representation, and no digital accessibility communication strategy. The transformation action plan, from the outset, violates the key human rights principles; Dignity, Equity, Independence, and Integration.

Delivering government digital services in Ontario, JUNE 22, 2016: https://www.centreforpublicimpact.org/towards-digital-ontario/

Meet the digital team, Sep 22, 2016: https://medium.com/ontariodigital/meet-the-digital-team-2a03c8cddf74

2. Delivering Digital Team Communications

The Ontario Digital Team partnered with the U.S. based independent company Medium to tell the team story because it has a well-established community of users and global reach. The fact that the Medium.com website fails the Ontario AODA Information and Communication standards, and has no apparent accessibility strategy, did not seem to be a concern for the Digital Team. I was told that the Digital Team do not have access to the Medium.com platform architecture, but have reached out to Medium to request site improvements and are waiting to hear back. In the meantime, the Digital Team can provide a plain text format of the Medium.com blog content upon request. These actions have not only created a new barrier for blind Ontarians, but clearly imply that Accessibility is a low priority and that blind persons are not expected to be a participating partner in the initial phases of Co-creating a more open government. The basic human rights principles identified in the 2010 HRDC report, once again are being ignored by the Ontario government; Designing inclusively, Refraining from creating new barriers, identifying and removing existing barriers, favouring integration over segregation, and involving persons with disabilities in exploring solutions through a cooperative process.

Ontario Digital Medium: https://medium.com/ontariodigital

3. Let's Get Digital.

On October 17, 2016, the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (BIIE) hosted "Let’s Get Digital", a public interactive workshop with digital leaders from across industry, community, non-profit organizations, and government. The purpose of the event was to introduce the Ontario Digital Government team, to help shape the Digital Government Action Plan. A series of activities were made available throughout the evening to facilitate conversations about how the Ontario government can deliver services that put citizens first and are user friendly. However, the event activities did not consider the communication needs of those persons with sensory disabilities (low vision, blind, deaf, and deaf-blind). I attended the event, but was marginalized due to the visual requirements of the activities, and felt isolated throughout the event discussion. The final report, which is in a PDF format with no accessibility markup, is a summation of insights and recommendations for the quantitative and qualitative data, derive from each of the activities note taker observations. The report insights provide the Ontario Digital Government team with recommendations on what to consider when crafting the Digital Government Action Plan. The report makes no reference to the importance of digital accessibility needs, inclusion of blind Ontarians, or partnerships that meet AODA compliance. Once again basic human rights principles have been ignored, and the responsibility of accessible communications inclusion has been passed off to a third party partner.

Let’s Get Digital: What We Learned, January 17, 2017: https://medium.com/ontariodigital/lets-get-digital-what-we-learned-feccbca01d2f

Lets Get Digital Insights and Recommendations (pdf): http://brookfieldinstitute.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Lets-Get-Digital-Insights-and-Recommendations.pdf

4. Code Day: Creating Space For Digital Work

In January 2017, the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development invited the government Digital Team to participate in a Code Day of learning and exploration. Unfortunately, the Digital Team did not take advantage of this opportunity to engage blind developers in this exercise, to help enhance the accessibility understanding for a more inclusive digital action plan. Possibly there are no blind developers working for the Ontario government. Without a Chief Accessibility Officer (CAO) and accessibility core skills, the Digital Team is blind to cross Ministry opportunities that could benefit from the talents of blind professionals. The Digital Team has been given the mandate to transition Ontario government services from the traditional delivery methods to an online digital user friendly service, and yet the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario and the Minister for Disabilities have no role or influence in this important process. This strategy of disability exclusion and AODA no accountability will prevent Ontario from achieving the goal of full inclusion by 2025. As we transition from a labour based economy to a knowledge based economy, advanced education and digital skills training will be critical in securing good employment, and this is one way we can reverse the rising unemployment rate for those living with vision loss.

Code Day: creating space for digital work, Ontario Digital, March 16, 2017: https://medium.com/ontariodigital/creating-space-for-digital-work-697006b6bf5f

5. Code For Canada Partnership

In April the Government of Ontario partnered with the civic tech community to be a founding partner of Code for Canada. Code for Canada connects coders and designers with governments to enhance digital literacy and develop technology-based solutions to improve people’s lives. The federal government, like the province of Ontario, is preparing for a digital future through the budget 2017 new innovation and skills plan. However, like the Ontario Digital Initiative, the Canada innovation action plan is not inclusive. That is, the action plan will invest in innovative solutions that support disability challenges, but does not provide for the active participation of Canadians who are blind. Bridging the gap between government and the tech sector is the fastest way to produce great, user centered digital public services, but technology is only as good as the people who make it. Code For Canada bring policymakers, technologists, designers, public servants and engaged residents together, to learn from one another and make their communities better places to live. However, the Code For Canada website has significant accessibility barriers for screen reader users who want to actively participate in the digital transition process. Again, the Ontario Digital Team has put AODA standards aside, and have chosen to resolve accessibility barriers over time according to the partner strategy.

It’s time for Code for Canada, April 6, 2017: https://medium.com/ontariodigital/its-time-for-code-for-canada-fe5e2a2b78d4

Budget 2017 Plan: Chapter 1, Skills, Innovation and Middle Class Jobs: http://www.budget.gc.ca/2017/docs/plan/chap-01-en.html#Toc477707371

Conclusion: Digital Government Accessibility Plan

In 2005 the Ontario government took a bold step in raising social expectations for greater inclusion, by passing into law the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). Unfortunately, the AODA implementation action plan has been weak and without leadership guidance. Government leaders have shifted responsibility for digital accessibility to large software providers and policy advisors that plan for the future with little regard for present needs. This has resulted in greater unemployment, marginalization, and isolation for persons living with vision loss. As we transition to a digital economy, communication barriers should disappear, accessible technologies should be mainstreamed, and processes should be more inclusive; But is this the reality for blind Ontarians. Despite good will and best intentions, have we made real progress toward full inclusion?

Access to information and electronic technologies is a civil right and a vital employment issue for individuals with vision loss, and the Ontario Digital Government Initiative action plan mandate for the delivery of all government digital services, should be a key driver for inclusion; But yet digital communication processes continue to be a challenge for blind Ontarians. Building a successful digital team requires diversity and subject matter expertise, and Nurturing a diverse workforce for innovation drives market growth, but accessible infrastructures and service planning is needed to achieve an inclusive workforce. We need leadership, not only with digital communication expertise, but with the understanding and ability to shape an inclusive Ontario. The Accessibility Directorate of Ontario (ADO) focus is on standards development and legislative enforcement, but have not taken any leadership initiative actions to enforce Digital Government inclusion. A new digital service design standard is not just about websites. The Internet of connected things is increasingly changing our personal lives, households and businesses. The barriers we confront today are not due to technology innovation limitations, but rather cultural attitudes of social innovation for disability inclusion. That is, shifting disability from segregation to integration, from institutionalization to mainstreaming, from the medical model viewed as a condition to be treated to the social model of removing disabling barriers in the environment, is a greater challenge than implementing enabling technologies. We must close the gap of leadership understanding between digital accessibility solutions and disability perceptions.

The AODA Integrated Accessibility Regulation has had no impact on the Ontario Digital Government Initiative action plan, in preventing new communication barriers or removing existing barriers for blind Ontarians. The Ontario government actions to date have favoured segregation over integration by not involving blind professionals in the collaborative process of exploring digital solutions. Forging partnerships without an Accessibility strategy, not only violates the spirit of AODA, but delays the removal of communication barriers. A collaborative partnership requires active participation in policy guidelines, procedure engagements, ownership of defined deliverables, and not just consultation and advisory roles. Government digital products and services must consider accessibility from the start, which means partnerships that share in the delivery of the initiative, must comply with expectations. It is no longer acceptable to create inaccessible websites, and offer text formats for online content; Which is like telling a person in a wheelchair to use the back door. We have the technology and the skills to shape an inclusive Ontario today, but sadly Ontario leadership does not recognize talent within the blind community. It is a myth, accepted by most government leaders, that accessibility is a disability design requirement and can be handled by special services as a secondary component to development. However, Accessibility is less about Disability and more about Productivity. That is, Accessibility is a measurement of productivity; Products and services that enable people to be productive and satisfied, with or without a disability.

Action: Digital Transformation Inclusion

Avoidance of new barriers is an immediate obligation, and we should not tolerate government partnerships that promise to work on accessibility solutions without an immediate strategy for existing barriers. The digital revolution is transforming Ontario organizations, and the AODA Standards are setting a new level of social expectations for greater prosperity and inclusion, but we cannot stand by as onlookers waiting for accessibility solutions to be delivered at some future date. The Ontario Digital Initiative Team strategy, to transform digital ideas into plans of action, has failed the first challenge of helping teams across the government to consistently improve the digital experience by ignoring AODA requirements.

The Honourable Deborah Matthews, Minister Responsible for Digital Government: "how might we attract individuals with digital skills to the Ontario Public Service?" and "how might we empower and nurture people with digital skills inside the Ontario Public Service?"

Create a Chief Accessibility Officer position on the Digital Government Initiative team to be responsible for integrating a digital accessibility strategy across ministries. Engage with blind professionals to resolve digital communication barriers within the Ontario Public Service, that will empower blind employees. To date, the expressed attitude of government leaders has been to market disability concerns, but avoid taking direct actions in digital accessibility solutions. The Ontario Public Service, despite a policy of diversity excellence and available accessibility solutions, has continued to minimize digital accessibility barriers confronted by blind employees. To fulfill Ontario’s vision of transforming the way that citizens interact and engage with their government through the power of digital technology and achieve full inclusion by 2025, the Minister for Disabilities must take a proactive approach to involving persons living with vision loss in the digital government transformation process. For the most part, technology enjoyed by mainstream society today, has its roots in research and development in finding a solution for a disability challenge. We need to reverse the current government trend of innovating technologies and then going out to find a problem to solve. Sadly, Ontario has creative innovators but no connection to the disability market, and available usable communication technologies that are not affordable by blind persons, and talented blind persons with no access to digital skills education training. Craft an integrated digital accessibility strategy that will move government beyond showcasing disability issues to implementing real solutions in removing communication barriers.

As an advocate for persons who are blind, have low vision, and are deaf-blind, I encourage the AEBC organization to evaluate the Ontario Digital Government Initiative action plan, and assess the value of achieving the four inclusive pillars; Dignity, Equity, Independence, and Integration. We need to provoke the Ontario government into an open and honest dialog of digital accessibility. We need to be actively involved with the digital transformation process, but if communication barriers prevent us from engaging in the ongoing dialog, then we will continue to be dependent on those who speak for us. Let your voice be heard, as we have the most to gain in a digital economy that will improve our quality of life at home, school, work, and in transit. Mobile and wearable technologies, not just accessible websites, are a reality in other countries, and you have the power to make it a reality in Canada.

David Best, Accessibility Information Technology Specialist
http://www.davidbest.ca

Disclaimer:

This blog is curated by the AEBC, but welcomes contributions from members and non-members alike. The thoughts, views, and opinions expressed in the Blind Canadians Blog are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the AEBC, its members, or any of its donors and partners.
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