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Challenging the System

Editor's Note: Editor’s Note: In November 2010 the court ruled in favour of Ms. Jodhan. In January 2011 the Federal Government filed an appeal. Donna Jodhan is AEBC’s 2nd Vice President. Reprinted from E-Access Bulletin, Issue 131, November 2010: http://www.headstar.com/eab

It's fair to say that Canadian citizen Donna Jodhan knows a thing or two about accessibility. A specialist consultant in the field with more than 16 years' experience, her company has worked with numerous clients, including financial institutions and the University of Toronto. She has obtained Systems Engineering Certification from Microsoft and won various technical awards from IBM.

So when Jodhan--herself legally classed as blind--brought a case against the Canadian Federal Government, stating that the lack of accessibility of its websites for blind and visually impaired Canadian citizens meant that her rights were being breached, she made a formidable opponent.

The problems which led to her action began in 2006, when Jodhan was unable to create a job profile on the Government of Canada's employment website--the point of access for all federal government job opportunities. When trying to complete a section of the form (the “date available” field), she simply received an error message each time. She attempted to contact the site's owners, but the phone number provided was out of service.

Jodhan was forced to seek assistance from a sighted government employee to create a job profile, but was still unable to review any of the information entered, as she was not given any user identification or password.

In addition to the problems with job applications, she was also unable to complete a 2006 online Census form from Statistics Canada, the country's national statistical agency. The form was only fully accessible to blind and visually impaired users who used the most recent version of the JAWS screen-reader--an expensive piece of technology, costing around 1,000 Canadian Dollars at the time. Jodhan was again forced to rely on sighted assistance from a government employee to complete the Census, which she regarded as an invasion of her privacy.

Furthermore, Jodhan found she was unable to access information on Canada's national consumer price index and unemployment rate, again on Statistics Canada's website, as the information was only available in a PDF file, which had not been adapted for screen-readers. Jodhan was informed by government employees that no alternative formats were available.

Jodhan's continued issues with government sites led her to consult a group of lawyers and an international accessibility expert, to find out what her legal position was. "I did this after years of having tried to convince the Canadian Government that their websites were not very accessible," Jodhan told E- Access Bulletin. "It was extremely difficult for blind and sight-impaired Canadians to navigate their websites to obtain relevant information, and complete forms in order to process requests and fill out job applications."

In 2007, Jodhan's lawyers filed court papers asking the Canadian Government to comply with widely used accessibility standards from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Between 2007-09, settlement negotiations were attempted but did not succeed, "because we did not feel that the Canadian Government was serious enough about our concerns" says Jodhan.

As a result, cross examinations of witnesses, accessibility experts and Jodhan herself took place in 2009, and in September of this year Jodhan and her lawyers attended Federal Court to present their case. "My lawyers argued that under the Canadian Charter of Rights, all Canadians have to be treated equally and that inaccessible governmental websites to blind and sight-impaired Canadians was a violation of the Charter. The government argued that they had fulfilled their obligations."

With the case having been heard, the court is currently “resting”--in other words, it has retired to deliberate--and the judge's decision is expected to be handed down within three or four months. Jodhan says she and her lawyers are "cautiously optimistic" about the result.

Whatever the outcome of the case, it has brought considerable publicity to a subject that is often swept under the carpet, with Jodhan's “Charter Challenge” receiving media coverage throughout Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and even India. "This topic needs to receive continuous attention and we believe that this court case is the perfect way to do it," she says.

Canada currently has no specific legal obligations to conform with web accessibility standards, although there are non-binding guidelines in place (Common Look and Feel for the Internet 2.0--CLF: http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/clf2-nsi2/index-eng.asp) that have requested federal government websites to comply with international “WCAG 1.0” standards since 2000.

Jodhan and her lawyers argue that the CLF guidelines are outdated, and say legislation should be introduced that requires government sites to conform to updated “WCAG 2.0” standards guidelines. "A best effort basis will not solve this problem," she says.

Jodhan believes that the Canadian Government does not see website accessibility and availability of information for blind and visually impaired citizens as a priority. "It is my opinion that the Canadian Government believes that blind and sight-impaired Canadians can get by using sighted assistance," she says.

In terms of private sector websites, these too should be mandated to adhere to strict accessibility standards, says Jodhan, but in any case, the Canadian Government should lead by example. "If they were to take the lead in this area, then others would naturally follow. It has to be a real and committed effort by all stakeholders and rightsholders--legislation, training, and working together."

More information on Jodhan and her work can be found on her blog: http://donnajodhan.blogspot.com/

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