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Crtc Hearing on Accessible Telecommunications and Broadcasting

Telephones and televisions are essential forms of communication that allow us to work, go to school, call for help in an emergency, and participate in community life. However, many people with disabilities cannot participate in these activities because telephones and TV programming are not accessible to them.

For example, the buttons on cell phones may be too small and their screens may be inaccessible for people with visual disabilities. People with cognitive disabilities or disabilities that affect their speech may not be able to get customer service because of voice activation features, which they cannot use. Often people who are deaf or blind cannot easily watch TV. The captioning of programs used by people who are deaf is unsatisfactory and people who are blind do not have access to the audio description they need to access information.

However, there is now some hope for advancement in relation to accessible telecommunications and broadcasting. November 2008 was a historic month for the disability community in this regard. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), for the first time, held a six day hearing in Gatineau, Quebec, to specifically address unresolved issues related to the accessibility of telecommunications and broadcasting services to people with disabilities.

The hearing provided a good opportunity for the disability community to express their views. It was a unique hearing for the CRTC in that special attention was paid to making it accessible for people with disabilities. ASL and LSQ interpretation was available throughout the hearing. French and English captioning were available in the hearing room as well as on the CRTC website. The hearing room was accessible for wheelchair users and CRTC staff were available throughout the hearing to assist with disability-related needs. The Commissioners on the panel at the hearing asked many questions in a genuine attempt to understand the concerns and perspectives of the disability community.

This hearing was particularly welcome because, notwithstanding the efforts over the past several years of ARCH and other disability organizations and people with disabilities, disability issues have largely been addressed by the CRTC in a piecemeal fashion. The CRTC had not taken its own initiative to systemically and proactively resolve the many barriers that exist. Rather they have dealt with limited, discrete concerns: Charges for TTY long distance calls and alternate format billings, for example, have been addressed in separate cases. Many other concerns, such as inaccessible cell phones, have been left unresolved.

The disability community was broadly represented at the hearing. Long-time advocates Chris and Marie Stark, and Henry Vlug, made presentations, as well as several disability groups, including the CNIB, Neil Squire Society, Canadian Association of the Deaf, Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, Council of Canadians with Disabilities, Canadian Hearing Society, Centre Quebecois de la Deficience Auditive and Regroupement des Aveugles et Amblyopes du Quebec. The presenters documented the experiences of their communities, the changes they desire and the ways in which they see this being achieved. As a whole, it was apparent that the presentations moved the Commissioners to a much deeper understanding of the barriers people with disabilities face, and the solutions that the community believes to be necessary.

Some general and essential recommendations were echoed by several groups. These include:

  • The CRTC must see this proceeding as the beginning of an ongoing and perpetual systemic approach to addressing accessibility issues.
  • A Disability Unit with an understanding of disability issues and technical expertise must be established within the CRTC.
  • Consultation with people with disabilities and disability organizations is essential.
  • A user-friendly mechanism must exist for people with disabilities to raise concerns.
  • The CRTC must require service providers, both broadcasters and telephone companies, to ensure that their products and services are accessible for people with disabilities. Service providers have not, and will not, take action unless they are told to do so.

In addition to these broad recommendations, many detailed recommendations were made, such as the need for a national video relay service, which allows people who are deaf to communicate using sign language with voice telephone users through video equipment; concerns about emergency notices on TV which are in print only with no voice component for people who are blind; concerns about captioning of television broadcasts and inaccessibility of cell phones.

ARCH's presentation focused primarily on telecommunications because of our expertise in this area. We supported the recommendations of the disability community and grounded our submissions in some fundamental realities about the community. Our submissions stressed the importance that the CRTC apply a cross-disability perspective, as well as one that ensures affordability of products and services and takes into account the many people with disabilities who live in poverty. We argued that the CRTC must take action to require that products and services are accessible and that in moving forward on accessibility, a disability unit within the CRTC must be established.

We supported our submissions with a disability law analysis to the statutory obligations that exist in relation to telecommunications. We argued that anti-discrimination and equality rights laws and principles apply to the entitlement of people with disabilities to accessible telecommunications. In particular, we articulated the applicability of human rights obligations and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to the CRTC's considerations of accessibility issues.

In addition to the November hearing, much of this proceeding has taken the form of written submissions. These include initial comments and responses to questions posed by the CRTC. Each party has an opportunity to submit final reply comments by January 12, 2009. The CRTC's decision will be issued after this date, although we do not know when and cannot speculate what the CRTC will decide.

In the words of Chris Stark, we are hoping that the Commission scores a home run.

The proceeding is referred to as: Broadcasting Notice of Public Hearing CRTC 2008-8 Telecom Public Notice CRTC 2008-8. More information can be accessed on the CRTC website and the transcripts, which are a verbatim record of everything that was said by each of the parties at the hearing, can be accessed at {http://www.crtc.gc.ca/eng/transcripts/2008/index.htm#tt1117}. ARCH's submissions in this proceeding can be accessed on our website at: {http://www.archdisabilitylaw.ca/publications/submissions.asp}

This proceeding is just one step in the process towards accessible telecommunications and broadcasting. We are hoping that it marks the beginning of a new era at the CRTC, one in which people with disabilities are active players along with the CRTC and industry, and the CRTC takes proactive, systemic and informed measures in addressing accessibility.

ARCH is continuing to participate in CRTC proceedings, which will have an impact on people with disabilities. To that end, we will be participating in a recently announced CRTC proceeding. In it, the CRTC will be addressing a number of matters relating to the internet. This proceeding will have a very large impact on telecommunications for people with disabilities in the future, especially those who depend on technology. The proceeding is referred to as Telecom Public Notice CRTC 2008-19: Review of the Internet traffic management practices of internet service providers. The Public Notice can be accessed at: {http://www.crtc.gc.ca/archive/ENG/Notices/2008/pt2008-19.htm}

Reprinted from ARCH Alert, December 19, 2008.