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Then and Now - Is Anyone Listening?

Editor's Note: Chris Stark is an AEBC member in Ontario and has received several AEBC advocacy awards.

One evening in 1990, my wife and I received a call from Irene Lambert, a founder of AEBC's Montréal Chapter. She said her phone company was going to charge for directory assistance but not give her a phone book she could read, and she asked if anything could be done. This request started a fifteen year struggle with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which culminated in the 2008 hearing and report on accessible phone and television services. While this particular need was solved and free directory assistance for persons who are blind was ordered early on, that was only the tip of the iceberg regarding inaccessibility. Since then, numerous telephone, cell phone and broadcasting complaints have been filed.

According to the CRTC, Canadian carriers must provide, upon request, billing statements and inserts in braille, large print or on computer diskette. The Commission further found that a carrier may also provide billing information in any other alternative format(s) agreed upon between the carrier and its customer. In addition, customers must be advised of the availability of new services. In Order 96-1191, the Commission ordered Bell to send an insert in braille to its blind subscribers, and to report on other steps taken to advise them of the availability of billing information in alternative formats.

Canadian carriers providing public pay phones are required to install sets that include, at a minimum, certain functionalities, when they replace or upgrade their existing sets or when they install pay telephones in new locations. These include: larger buttons spread further apart on the keypad; bright, contrasting-colour coin and/or card mechanisms; a feature enabling the user to start the call over if an error is made; a screen displaying context-sensitive dialling instructions in a larger size than possible with printed instruction cards; a card-reader for a variety of telephone cards; and voice prompts for placing calls or using features. The CRTC observed that same functionality would help with cell phone and terminals sold to the public. However, most of these mandated services, particularly notice of service change and enhancements, are not regularly provided today.

With regard to TV, the CRTC's Report on Interactive Television Services states, in 6.6 Accessibility (for persons with Disabilities):

"Two parties, the Starks and the (AEBC) raised concerns about the accessibility of new technologies, equipment and services for people who are blind or partially sighted. They pointed out that digital set top boxes now provide detailed information in a print format that is unusable to people who are blind or partially sighted.

"They stated that digital terminals should be able to provide on-screen information in an accessible format, both in large print and synthetic speech. It recommended that if such technologies do not already exist, the introduction of interactive digital services should be stopped so that the industry can ensure that the equipment used to provide such services is accessible.

"The Starks called upon the Commission to take a more proactive stance when it comes to addressing accessibility issues. They were critical of the Commission for not addressing the need for access in its public notices and proceedings.

"The Starks recommended that no digital service should be licensed or renewed, and no set-top box should be allowed to be attached to the broadcasting system until the ability of the company and the technology to serve people who are blind has been put in the equipment."

Nearly a year after this CRTC report was released, little improvement has been seen. The CRTC must bear most of the responsibility and accountability for the shocking lack of access for people who are blind and partially sighted. The Commission could have, and should have, made accessibility a condition of its decisions to forbear regulating telephone terminals, cell phones, and TV set-top boxes. Furthermore, when we go to the Commission for help, our experience is that it fosters an adjudicative confrontational environment, where citizens are pitted against gaggles of company lawyers, service provider associations, and those types of profiteers. The CRTC has treated filed complaints as nuisances, even though it knows blind people pay more for services, or go without them altogether, because of inaccessible features. Canadians who are blind and partially sighted still face the technological barriers of Canada's telephone and broadcasting services as informationally disadvantaged citizens.