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Access to Websites: The Golden Key to Communicating

Editor's Note: Donna Jodhan is President of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians. In November of 2011 the Federal Court of Appeal heard the Canadian government’s appeal of the Jodhan case which ordered improved access to government information and services for the blind community. The appeal decision has yet to be handed down. This article is adapted from Celebrating Our Accomplishments, Council of Canadians with Disabilities, November 2011.

It can easily be said that access to websites has been, and continues to be, one of the most important keys to communications on the internet, and as the technological landscape continues to evolve, it is only reasonable to expect that blind and partially sighted persons would want to be, and remain, a part of this world.

We are living in an information society and a knowledge-based economy, and the importance of accessible websites is becoming more vital because of the need to be able to access and respond to information on a timely basis. Websites give us the opportunity to do such things as: request and respond to information; complete online forms and applications; go online shopping and do our online banking; and much more.

It is one thing to have websites where we can do all of this, but it is quite another if these websites are not accessible. Accessible websites benefit everyone--from the mainstream person to the one who has a disability, be it blindness or partial sight, or a print, physical or learning disability.

What makes a website accessible? In a nutshell, an accessible website is one that gives the visitor the opportunity to find whatever they seek in relatively quick time, and they can do this easily and without having to ask for assistance. In the case of people who are blind or partially sighted, this may mean such things as providing text descriptions of icons and other visual features, the ability to change font size and colour contrast, and non-visual ways to handle CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) tests.

Is the accessibility of websites improving? Or is it deteriorating? In the case of the first question, access is slowly improving, but not nearly as quickly enough for blind and partially sighted persons. With regard to the second question, yes, in some instances access is deteriorating, and it all has to do with mainstream tools not being developed to include the requirements of adaptive technology--hardware and software alike. In short, two steps forward, and one step back.

What can we do as a community to ensure that more websites are made accessible to all persons? We can lobby our Federal Government to take the lead by mandating all companies that provide services to make their websites fully accessible. The Federal Government needs to lead by example. We can work to create awareness among information technology professionals re the benefits of designing and developing accessible websites, and we can help the mainstream person to understand how accessible websites can help to improve communication, and why inaccessible websites can be a definite drawback to everyone's ability to communicate effectively.

Accessible websites are the bridges to our online world, and without them we are lost. We need them if we have any hope of being able to keep up with technology and information on a daily basis. They are our lifeline to a world in which the internet dominates, and will continue to do so for way past our time. We need to keep all of this in mind as we continue our efforts to lobby for greater access to more websites.

We have come a long way with regard to raising awareness, but there is much more for us to do. We need to keep up and increase the pressure for more websites to be made accessible. Electronic communication has made it possible for us to play a more significant role in our society, much more than, say, a decade ago. Let us not waste our efforts.