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Legal Group Takes on Phone Firms Over Lack of Accessibility

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Toronto Star, October 4, 2003. *Image: Head shot of Chris Stark and Marie Stark.

More than a decade ago, after George Bush Sr. was elected President of the United States, American pollster Louis Harris did a survey. The Harris poll showed 50 percent of the votes that secured the election for Bush Sr. in 1988 were a direct result of his support for what would become the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.

We have no way of knowing the role played in this week's Ontario election by the Conservatives' weak, ineffectual 2002 Ontarians With Disabilities Act. Indeed, so few surveys are taken on disability issues anywhere in Canada, there's little wonder that related policy decisions are few and far between. If you're interested in seeing what research has been done, one of the best places to go is right here in Toronto.

ARCH: A Legal Resource Centre for Persons with Disabilities has been gathering information for more than 20 years. It's about to formally open a library housing a wealth of information on everything from human rights and employment to accessibility. (See details below about an open house.) It's also in the midst of a David-and-Goliath battle, pitting a blind couple against major telecommunications giants like Bell Canada and Telus. The outcome could affect the way all of us use telephone products in future, so it's a good time to start paying attention.

ARCH, which started in 1980 as the Advocacy Resource Centre for the Handicapped, specializes in precedent-setting cases. At issue in the battle over telephone equipment is whether the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) should regulate it and, if so, what kind of regulations are needed to make sure people with disabilities can use it easily.

Think about the rapidly growing array of telephones, electronic message pads, hand-held computers and the like. They have thousands of applications that rely on visual acuity and manual dexterity. If your fingers have difficulty pinpointing targets, how do you master a tiny, cramped keyboard? If you are blind and there's no uniformity in the way keys are placed, how do you know whether you're pushing "hold" or "redial"? And what use is call display for screening calls?

Chris and Marie Stark, an Ottawa couple, have fought long and hard to help those with so-called perfect vision see the other side of the coin.

Because of the Starks and other pioneering advocates, banks have tried to make automatic teller machines more accessible to people with disabilities. But the marketers of telephone equipment haven't been so accommodating.

The technology exists to use audio instead of visual cues. And it's not difficult to manufacture raised symbols that can be identified by touch. But Canadian marketers have chosen, by and large, to ignore accessibility issues.

The Starks note that phone keypad layouts are not consistent and function keys are seldom at the same place, even on different models from the same manufacturer. "The most frustrating thing about this issue is that all the equipment is new," says Marie Stark. "It was developed without considering the needs of people who are blind. Operation without sight thus becomes an after-the-fact retrofit, rather than a design element to ensure that the terminal is usable by as many people as possible."

The Starks initially took their complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. It referred the issue to the CRTC.

The Ottawa couple hopes regulation by the commission would, among other things, force manufacturers to build in accommodation for customers who are blind. ARCH has joined the battle, hoping to get the commission to recognize the needs of all people with disabilities.

"The goal is to improve the quality of life for others," says Stark. And that includes able-bodied people. Take car cellphones, for example. A driver who has to reach out and press buttons to make a phone call does not have both hands on the wheel. If phone numbers could be reached by giving voice commands, it would be safer and more convenient for everyone, Stark points out.

The CRTC suspended proceedings on the issue, saying it wants more time to do research on the accessibility of telephone equipment.

ARCH has already consulted a number of disability groups but it is still interested in hearing from anyone with ideas to share, says staff lawyer Lana Kerzner. You can email her at kerznel@lao.on.ca More information is also available on the CRTC's website: www.crtc.gc.ca

Reprinted with permission--Torstar Syndication Services.