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Making Information and Communications Accessible to and usable by Blind, Deaf-blind and Partially Sighted Persons - Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services

Thursday, January 1, 2009
A Brief Submitted to the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services in Response to the Draft Information and Communication Accessibility Standard (ICAS), by The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians / L'Alliance pour l’égalité des personnes aveugles du Canada (AEBC).



On November 17, 2008, the Ontario Government released a draft Information and Communication Accessibility Standard (ICAS). This proposal was prepared under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act 2005 (AODA) by the Information and Communication Standards Development Committee.

This brief presents the response from the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians / L'Alliance pour l'Égalité des personnes aveugles du Canada (AEBC) to this Draft, along with recommendations that we hope will assist the Committee to strengthen and finalize this Draft Standard.


The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians/ L'Alliance pour l'égalité des personnes aveugles du Canada (AEBC) is a national consumer organization of rights holders who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, that is very active in Ontario. Our work focuses on improving attitudes and providing input on issues of public policy of importance to our community. To learn more about the AEBC and our work, visit our accessible website:

The AEBC commends the Ontario Government for choosing Information and Communications as one of its first accessibility standards. This is a pervasive and critical barrier in the lives of persons with print disabilities, and the AEBC is delighted the Ontario Government is tackling this issue at an early point in the history of the AODA's accessibility standards.

We commend the ICAS Committee for developing stronger provisions than are contained in the current Customer Service or Draft Transportation Accessibility Standards.

We also commend the Committee for including a series of comments on what was intended, on areas of divided opinion among members of the Committee, and on areas where public feedback is sought. These notes are very helpful, especially to organizations such as ours that have very limited resources, and we hope that other Standards Development Committees follow this helpful approach.


The introduction to the Draft Information and Communication Accessibility Standard states:

It is the Committee’s vision that by 2025, information and methods of communication are designed and developed up-front to be accessible to people with disabilities. ... This proposed standard is progress toward what organizations in Ontario will be doing by 2025 to ensure they are not excluding people with disabilities as they prepare information and communicate with employees, other organizations, service recipients and the general public.

The AEBC believes the Committee's "vision" falls considerably short of the Purpose of the Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act 2005, S.O. 2005, CHAPTER 11, already in force, which must guide the work of all Standards Development Committees. Its Purpose states:

Recognizing the history of discrimination against persons with disabilities in Ontario, the purpose of this Act is to benefit all Ontarians by: (a) developing, implementing and enforcing accessibility standards in order to achieve accessibility for Ontarians with disabilities with respect to goods, services, facilities, accommodation, employment, buildings, structures and premises on or before January 1, 2025;...

The Committee's vision also falls short of the progress the Ontario Government should already have made based on the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2001 S.O. 2001, CHAPTER 32, which states in part:

Government internet sites
6. The Government of Ontario shall provide its internet sites in a format that is accessible to persons with disabilities, unless it is not technically feasible to do so. 2001, c. 32, s. 6.

Government publications
7. Within a reasonable time after receiving a request by or on behalf of a person with disabilities, the Government of Ontario shall make an Ontario Government publication available in a format that is accessible to the person, unless it is not technically feasible to do so. 2001, c. 32, s. 7."


The need for a strong, effective Information and Communication Accessibility Standard is of great importance to Ontarians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted. Two recent examples further illustrate and re-enforce the need for a strong and enforceable Standard.

On December 4, 2008, the Ontario Government released its Poverty Reduction Strategy. Ironically, on that day, it was posted on the Government’s website only in PDF. This computer file format is well-known and widely-documented to present accessibility problems with adaptive technology used by many computer users with print disabilities.

Several days before, the Ontario Human Rights Commission circulated via email an invitation to attend a John Humphrey Freedom Award, also in the problematic PDF format. Around the same time, it also circulated an invitation to a celebration for December 10, the International Day for Human Rights, in GIF format, which is even more inaccessible.

Based on the existing provisions of the Ontarians With Disabilities Act, 2001, and the Ontario Human Rights Code, the Ontario Government by now should have been complying with these statutory obligations and showing the way forward, but once again, they created another easily-avoidable, unnecessary barrier to equal access to information and communication for persons with various print disabilities. The cost to provide these in a fully accessible daisy, HTML, txt, MP3 or MS Word format would have been negligible.

The Ontario Government should be issuing all of its communication in formats that are fully accessible and usable by all Ontarians, including Ontarians who have a print disability.

These examples are by no means isolated situations. We wish we could say they were. Receiving documents from public and private bodies in inaccessible formats still remains a far too routine occurrence, and it must stop!!!


The term "accessibility" is widely used throughout this Draft Accessibility Standard, as one would expect. However, not everyone has the same understanding of this widely-used term. The issue of providing documents only in pdf format is an important case in point that is directly relevant to the content of this Standard.

Many organizations -- including the Governments of Ontario and Canada themselves -- falsely believe a pdf document is always "accessible," but too often this is simply not true.

Adobe has managed to falsely convince many organizations that its product makes all documents accessible. However, we continue to visit websites whose content is unreadable and receive documents containing attachments that our screen readers tell us are "empty," when they actually contain text.

Making a PDF file "accessible" depends on how the document is created and what software the individual is using. Thus, if an organization persists and still wants to put a pdf document on its website, or send out a communication in pdf, that organization must ALWAYS provide a version in an accessible format (daisy, text, ms-word MP3 or html), to ensure the document will be readable and usable by an individual who is using a screen reader.


The AEBC supports the principles set out in the Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act Alliance's brief, and we wish to comment on those of greatest concern to our community;


Organizations already HAVE a legal duty to accommodate the needs of persons with disabilities provided that doing so does not create "undue hardship." This duty includes the provision of information and communications in fully accessible formats.

To ensure Ontario is fully accessible by 2025, the ICAS must meet, if not exceed, the provisions of the Ontario Human Rights Code, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Ontarians With Disabilities Act 2001 (discussed above), and landmark court decisions such as Eldridge v. B.C. ([1997] S.C.J. No. 86).

The Standards Development Committee’s commentary states:

Several organizations suggested that requirements include a “'reasonable efforts threshold.'" However, such an approach would not conform with the provisions of the Ontario Human Rights Code, which requires the accommodation of persons with disabilities to the point of undue hardship. All Standards must be in line with and support the provisions of the Code, which has primacy over all other legislation and regulations.


The ICAS must ensure fully accessible information and communications for goods, services and facilities by 2025 if not sooner by removing existing barriers and by preventing the creation of new barriers in the future.

The ICAS must do more than merely "improve accessibility." It must ensure that all information and communications are fully accessible and usable throughout Ontario by 2025.


While the ICAS must be specific enough that service providers and enforcement officials are clear on what must be implemented, the ICAS must also be written in such a way that its provisions cannot be used as a means for creating new barriers in the future. In other words, without careful crafting, what may be today's ceiling in providing access may become tomorrow's floor. This must be prevented.


Section 2.1 of the ICAS states:

When organizations provide individual accommodation as required by Ontario's Human Rights Code, the organization shall meet the requirements of Section 5 and Schedule 1 and: a) give the individual at least the same time to review, respond or use the information and communications for the intended purpose as given to others, b) provide the same quality so that it is equally up-to-date, complete, and accurate as is available to others, and c) provide the same availability in terms of time and place as is available to others."

Sufficient time must be built in. Some people need more time to read, absorb and understand the same information.

For many who use a screen reader, Tables can be very problematic and a Narrative Summary is needed. Tables should not be used as a formatting tool; they should only be used to present data.


The ICAS should indicate what information/communication must be immediately available in various accessible formats, and which documents can be provided following their release, upon request, in a timely manner.

Examples of documents which must be available in various alternative formats on the day they are released in print include, but are not limited to:

  • Documents that are most frequently used by the disabled community. Examples include application forms for social assistance, tax rebates, etc.
  • Reports and legislation that require immediate or time-sensitive comments or feedback to be useful and effective;
  • Documents that are routinely used by the general public, e.g. restaurant menus in various alternative formats. A Braille menu is very inexpensive to obtain. It only costs a few dollars, especially if the original print menu is available electronically and can be sent via email to a Braille transcription service. A restaurant need only have one or two braille copies on hand. It is even easier to produce large-print menus


Organizations must develop a communications strategy that will inform customers and employees with disabilities what kinds of documents are available, and how they can request information/communications in the individual's preferred accessible format in a timely manner.

Current methods to inform often just utilize web sites as if all people have computer access or have the ability to find such information via the internet. A successful Communication Strategy must take various forms, and must not presume that all interested individuals have access to a computer.

Historically, requesting a document has been a "chicken or egg" process; it is difficult to request a document if the individual does not know what kinds of documents an organization publishes.

More and more persons with disabilities are acquiring access to computers and other technologies, and most documents are now prepared electronically, which makes complying with this easier than ever before.

To facilitate prompt distribution, organizations should keep electronic versions of such information in an electronic format that is accessible to persons with disabilities (e.g. daisy, txt, MS Word MP3 or HTML - not PDF), which can easily be provided via email, or translated into Braille or large print on request.

Large organizations should enter into contracts with external suppliers of accessible formats or develop in-house capacity to produce documents in various accessible formats, and smaller ones should develop contracts with external suppliers, so a request can be responded to in a timely manner. Most external suppliers can offer quick turnaround, provided that a contract is already in place, and some advance notice is given.


The ICAS should accommodate rapidly-changing technology. Persons with disabilities, including Ontarians with a print disability must be able to use and benefit from changes/advances in technology.

At the same time, it must never be assumed that all Ontarians own or use a computer. When information is requested today, it has become the norm to direct the customer to an organization's website . Hard copy versions must also be available.

8. COST:

The cost of providing accessible information to persons with disabilities is continually dropping and technology to provide accessible communications is rapidly increasing.

Technology is making it easier to produce documents in various accessible formats, and more and more individuals are acquiring computers, which enable the individual to read a document provided it is made available in an accessible format.

In addition, as the Summary Report: Cost Impact Assessment Proposed Information and Communication Standard, prepared by KPMG, November 6, 2008 observed:

As society becomes increasingly reliant on computers in the conduct of correspondence and transactions, a strong preference for information in electronic format has emerged. Retail entities are responding to this significant change in consumer behaviour, and have capitalized on this by reducing the volume of printed material, thereby reducing marketing and operating costs.

Therefore, the AEBC supports Section 2.5 of the ICAS which states:

2.5. Cost for information and communications in alternate accessible formats. The cost to the person with a disability for alternate accessible formats as required by any sections of this standard shall be no more than the regular cost of the formats charged to others.


The ICAS must include strong provisions to promote Universal Design. It is critical that organizations take into account the information and communication needs of people with disabilities, when they design and develop/purchase their information and communication systems, and as they develop/implement policies and practices, including those that affect the procurement of information technology. This is not only important for communicating with persons with disabilities, it is also critical for employing persons with disabilities within the organization, something which is desperately needed.

Procurement policies must contain clauses where accessibility and usability are entrenched so that applications will not be purchased or produced unless they meet the provisions of this Standard. Organizations should implement a contract compliance system, whereby only equipment that is fully accessible to and usable by all, including persons with disabilities, will be purchased by the organization.

The Ontario Government annually spends hundreds of millions of dollars financing activities at the municipal, broader public sector and private sector levels. Thus, it is uniquely positioned to both lead by example and use the "power of the purse" to ensure that taxpayers’ dollars are used to build in accessibility, and not create new barriers that impede persons with disabilities.

It is far easier and more cost effective to construct and develop a system the right way from the ground up, than to have to retrofit it or use "work-arounds" later on.


The ICAS must be written clearly to make them easily enforceable. It is critical that enforcement officials, organizations that must comply and customers and employees with disabilities should all be able to easily assess if an organization is in compliance with, or in breach of, Ontario's accessibility standards.

To date, organizations such as the AEBC have questioned the extent to which the Ontario Government intends to vigorously enforce the various Accessibility Standards. It is crucial that Accessibility Standards contain clearly defined objectives, with specified time frames, and that these are enforced and penalties assessed wherever appropriate.



The AEBC would prefer that all Accessibility Standards have consistency in both the size and kinds of organizations to be covered, and the dates when these Standards come into force, as many organizations will have to comply with more than one Accessibility Standard. However, we do not wish to see any undue delay in issuing a Standard when it is ready to become a Regulation.

The AEBC, like the AODA Alliance, is concerned over the definition of “small business” contained in the ICAS. While an organization might have only a few employees, it may be a huge, well-resourced chain, with extensive information and communication infrastructure.

A business with only a few employees may have substantial revenues, and It may have a large number of workers with whom it has contracted as independent contractors or franchisees, rather than as employees (e.g. many taxi companies or fast food outlets), and the bulk of information dissemination and communications functions may be carried on by the central body on behalf of its contractors or franchisees.

The AEBC supports a commentary accompanying the ICAS, which notes that condominium corporations may have zero employees. Yet they may have important accessible information and communication needs for owners/residents with disabilities that they should be able to easily meet.


A commentary accompanying the ICAS states:

Some key areas of information and communications are not within Ontario’s jurisdiction to regulate (e.g. telecommunications including broadcasting and federally-regulated bank Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs)).

While this is true, it does not justify the total omission of any measures addressing information and communication barriers that may be within Ontario's jurisdiction. For example, while broadcasting is under federal jurisdiction, the Ontario Government owns and operates TV Ontario and its French counterpart, TFO. The information communication standard should at least establish minimum accessibility requirements for its programming and operations.

While banks are covered under federal jurisdiction, most if not all trust companies also fall under provincial jurisdiction. Therefore, accessible bank machines for trust companies in Ontario could and should be mandated under the ICAS.


Although it has become easier and cheaper to incorporate accessibility features into products by employing principles of universal design and emerging technology, ironically, more and more household products and appliances are appearing in the marketplace with unusable features, particularly the growing introduction of visual menus that are unusable by a person who has a print disability. The ICAS must help remove and prevent these new barriers.

This barrier can easily be overcome in most cases. Adding an inexpensive computer chip with a synthetic voice can enable a vision-impaired individual to read the visual menu. At the same time, it also provides a major convenience for sighted customers who don’t want to have to drop what they are doing, and squint at a tiny screen. Again, many accessibility features that are designed initially to assist persons with disabilities often also assist the rest of the population.

In addition, it makes little sense to mandate that operating manuals must be available in accessible formats if the products they are designed to enable the customer to use aren't also fully accessible and usable. Thus, the manufacture of technology and products must also fall within the provisions of the ICAS.


The Standards Development Committee expressed concern over creating a "competitive disadvantage" to manufacturers if product design is covered by the provisions of the ICAS.

However, we do not believe that covering the design and manufacture of products under the ICAS will produce this outcome, nor do we believe this fear can justify the ICAS failing to effectively address this important area.

Section 1 of the Ontario Human Rights Code already guarantees the right to equal treatment with respect to the enjoyment of goods, not just facilities and services. The AODA reaffirms this and the ICAS must implement these already existing obligations.

KPMG's Summary Report comments:

It has been estimated that Canadians with disabilities command $25 billion of spending power. Approximately 39% of Canadians with disabilities reside in Ontario. If it is assumed that there is an even distribution of spending power across Canada among people with disabilities, it would be reasonable to anticipate some $10 billion of disposable income in that sector of the community. Even a small increase in access to goods and services has the potential to positively impact the bottom line of many organizations across the Province.

In addition, if Ontario produces more disability-accessible products, Ontario companies will be on the cutting edge, with a competitive advantage, not a disadvantage. This should offer Ontario companies an increased opportunity to sell products to customers in the United States which must already comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and to customers in other countries as they develop their own legislation mandating accessible products.

The AEBC recommends that the ICAS allow some additional time to manufacturers to ensure that the information and communication features of these products include basic, readily achievable accessibility features. However, it will be important to qualify "additional time" so that undue delays do not occur in developing fully accessible products and applications.


Casting one's vote is considered the most important act a citizen performs in any democracy.

During the last provincial election, the McGuinty Government promised an action plan to make elections more accessible for persons with disabilities, and we heartily commend the Information and Communication Standards Development Committee for including provisions for making municipal and provincial elections accessible in this Draft Standard.

For persons who are blind this must include:

  1. Full access to election platforms and other campaign information from parties and candidates in various accessible formats via websites, and hard copies of documents.
  2. Fully participate in all-candidates’ debates, including being able to ask questions of candidates.
  3. Full access to information on where and when to vote, and on lists of candidates in various accessible formats.
  4. Full access to polling stations, including adequate lighting for electors who have low vision.
  5. Fully participate in elections as candidates, on a footing of equality where the extra costs of being a candidate with a disability are covered, thereby removing this systemic barrier.
  6. And of greatest importance, becoming able to independently and privately mark the ballot, and verify how we voted without requiring the assistance of a friend or poll official.

Section 7.1 of the ICAS states:

Secure voting methods (such as online and / or telephone) shall be implemented to allow persons with disabilities to vote privately and independently.

As mentioned earlier in this Brief, various interpretations of what is "accessible" continue to exist. This Section of the Draft ICAS's should be made more specific to make this totally clear by adding at the end of this section, "and to be able to independently verify how the elector voted."

The ICAS can address many but not all of these issues. We also endorse the Information and Communication Standards Development Committee’s call for amendments to elections legislation, where necessary, to remove statutory barriers to a fully accessible electoral system.

The AEBC believes the Ontario Government must expedite the development of a more accessible electoral system by holding an open, accessible consultation on making provincial and municipal elections fully accessible, so the needed changes can be implemented for the 2010 municipal elections and the 2011 provincial elections.


The AEBC heartily endorses the ICAS's effort to provide for accessibility of curriculum materials throughout Ontario’s education system. It is inexcusable that in 2008, students with disabilities continued to report ongoing problems in acquiring their course materials in an accessible format in the needed timely manner.

It is now far easier to quickly produce needed materials in accessible formats than it was in the past, yet these problems persist!

We believe this ongoing fault stems from a failure on the part of the government and of educational institutions to take this ongoing systemic barrier sufficiently seriously.

Instructors must determine their reading lists sufficiently early for accessible versions of needed course materials to be obtained.

The Ontario Government must work far more closely with publishers of educational materials to ensure their availability in various accessible formats at the same time as print versions, as the availability of these materials is crucial to a student's success.

Today, post secondary educational institutions are delivering more and more of their courses over the internet, and, to date, adequate attention has not been given to ensuring this delivery method is fully usable by students with disabilities. This is an aspect of information and communication delivery, and must be fully covered by the ICAS.


The proposed ICAS’s commentary seeks input on whether public libraries should be covered by this standard. The AEBC strongly believes the ICAS should mandate accessibility obligations for public libraries.

Speaking at a Panel Discussion, sponsored by Library and Archives Canada on December 3, 2008, James Sanders, President and CEO of the CNIB stated:

In 2003, I addressed the Access Council of then the National Library. ... I shared with the Access Council my dream to walk into my local public library, register as a client, know what was available, determine how to receive it, make the selection and have access to the services of my library.

Public Libraries are a publicly-funded government service. Libraries are a window on the world when it comes to published information, principally books, and they are a place for conducting research, attending meetings and participating more fully in one's community.

While public libraries today are supplying some audio books, the quantity of accessible materials pales in comparison to the range of print materials they make available to the general public.

Among the wealthier western democracies, Canada is the only one which leaves it to non-profit private sector charities such as CNIB to provide alternative format books to persons with print disabilities. This is unacceptable.

In sharp contrast, for decades the U.S. Library of Congress has had a government funded Special Services Division which has produced and circulated alternative-accessible format books to persons with print disabilities.

In 2007, Library and Archives Canada inaugurated the Initiative for Equitable Library Access Project (IELA), a three-year project focused on improving access to information for Canadians with a print disability. The report of the Kick-Off Meeting, held on October 26, 2007 describes the Project's goals. It states in part:

Equitable library service means having choice: libraries offer all materials in all formats, e.g., braille, plain text, HTML, large print, audio, especially more high quality commercially produced audio books. That everything is mainstream, NOT "special"; one system that provides choice to everyone.

The principle of universal design is in place; this means that whoever needs or wants to have material regardless of their situation in life has access to the library (e.g., a young mom at home listening to an audio book while doing housework, a commuter listening in the car, a person with a disability, a young person doing research, etc.). Equitable library service would mean one interoperable and seamless delivery system which users could customize to deliver their format of choice.

Equitable library access means one system that provides the same quality for all, i.e., the same turnaround time and assistance, regardless of format used; libraries have knowledgeable and qualified staff to assist users with print disabilities and to show them how the technology is adapted. Equitable library access means inter-library services are available for all. Libraries perform outreach activities in communities; public libraries deliver to seniors' residences. Issues of intellectual property rights have been addressed and do not impede the production of material in multiple formats. In a perfect world, there is no need for a CNIB library because the system of public libraries provides services to Canadians with print disabilities; publicly funded not private charity.

Achieving that vision would require:

  • That sufficient funding (through federal, provincial, territorial and municipal partnerships) is available for a system that public and educational libraries could tap into. That files originate from a central, neutral place, perhaps a new public agency of some sort. That an equitable publishing environment exists where publishers make the information accessible in electronic format and contract out the production into alternative formats.
  • That a set of standards and guides are developed and implemented. That libraries have the training and technology to assist and teach end users to read books in multiple formats; and/or that users themselves are equipped with the technology. That there is a phone number/hotline of an accessibility expert for library staff to call when they need help providing equitable services; this would help those in small to medium size libraries who do not have the resources for in-house expertise.
  • That a communication and outreach strategy is in place to ensure users are informed of the services and want to use them.
  • That a change of mindset takes place both in libraries and in the print disabled communities; that potential users will see their local library as a place to go for materials.

In September, 2008, the IELA Project held a series of consultations with public libraries and their users with print disabilities. Some of the key findings included the importance and value of libraries to the community, the need for increased funding and particularly the need for guidelines and training.

The summary report of these consultations is available on the IELA web site at:


The AEBC endorses the proposed ICAS’s requirement that professional licensing bodies provide training on information and communication accessibility needs of persons with disabilities for their members.

However, we believe the need goes much further than this. The AEBC has long advocated that modules on the needs of persons with disabilities should be a regular part of training programs for professions such as architects, lawyers, medical practitioners, IT designers, teachers, etc.


We reiterate our comments listed above concerning pdf as an ongoing and pervasive barrier. If organizations wish to continue to publish information using the pdf format, they must also provide said document in an accessible format, such as daisy, html, MP3 or text.


The AEBC supports the inclusion of the issue of emergency strategies for persons with disabilities in this proposed Standard.

Some years ago, a number of Ontario Government ministries committed in their annual accessibility plans, published under the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2001, to develop emergency measures policies.

We recommend the ICAS review these and determine if they are adequate to conform to the rest of this Draft Accessibility Standard, or if expanded practices are necessary.


The AEBC supports Section 5.4.3 of the Draft Standard, which states:

Organizations shall, in accordance with Clause 5.2, provide an opportunity to use a legal alternative to a personal signature when a personal signature is required.

Some members of the AEBC already have experience in using alternative methods to a written signature to sign legal documents, e.g. a scanned electronic signature, or respond via an e-mail, indicating they have read the attached document, and agree with its terms.


The AEBC supports Section 6.0 of the ICAS:

6.0 Description

All video whether delivered over the Web, via moveable digital media, on a mobile device, through film, through a kiosk or other delivery device shall provide the option of description (also referred to as descriptive video). The description shall: a) Describe visual information essential or important to understanding the content of the video (including the menu); and b) Be synchronized with the visual information while not interfering with the spoken audio content of the video.


Any new technology that is purchased by any organization covered by this ICAS must adhere to universal design principles, and be usable by all individuals, including persons with disabilities. Technology is critical, not only in the provision of information and communications, it is equally important when it comes to employment opportunities, which are currently far too few for members of our community.


The AEBC believes this Draft ICAS represents an excellent beginning, and with additions, clarifications, and more specific language, especially in areas such as elections, use of pdf, household products, libraries and educational bodies, as proposed by the AEBC in this Brief, and by other organizations, this Standard could greatly advance the information and communication needs of persons with various disabilities, including those of us who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted.

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