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The Epidemic of Inaccessible Touch-Screen Point of Sale Devices

Editor's Note: Jeffrey Stark is a member of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians in Kanata, Ontario, and has two decades of experience in advocating for accessible technology for persons with disabilities.

Blind consumers may soon no longer be able to do many tasks and activities that they currently perform. Simple things like going shopping for groceries and clothing, travelling, paying for lodgings etc. may soon be more difficult or even impossible, unless they are willing to put themselves at far greater risk of theft, fraud and financial ruin. This could affect over three million blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted Canadians, not to mention those with other print disabilities.

Touch-screen point of sale (POS) devices are becoming more and more of an issue for blind consumers as more companies and organizations implement them. These smooth-surface systems offer no tactile or auditory access/feedback, with the possible exception of a raised dot on the number five key, which means that blind consumers cannot privately or independently input their PIN (personal identification number) when making a purchase with a bank or credit card. What’s more, they can’t verify for themselves that they are being charged the correct amount. And the fact that these devices’ icons/buttons and text change from screen to screen only makes things more difficult.

This epidemic is hitting everything from hotels and restaurants to grocery, clothing and electronics stores; even Canada Post now uses touch-screen point of sale devices. What this means is that blind persons would not be able to pay for products and services using their credit or debit card at most establishments, since they can’t independently use a POS device. Their only option would be to give their PIN number to a friend, family member or even the sales clerk for them to enter it on their behalf. But that lays them open to the risk of fraud and theft. If blind consumers carry more cash on them than usual, perhaps to make a big-ticket purchase like a TV or computer, since they can’t use a POS device, they are a prime target for robbery. Finally, if blind customers cannot verify the amount they are being charged on a touch-screen POS device, they are still liable for that amount, should there be an error; they have no recourse to the bank or credit card company.

The barrier here is not a technological one; it is a lack of will, oversight or regulation. Code Factory on Windows Mobile and Google’s Android have shown that a touch-screen device can be made accessible using existing technology, as has Apple with its iPhone, iPod and iPad. These Apple products have a built-in, touch-screen interface, as well as the Voiceover screen reader, for non-sighted users that is unobtrusive and can be toggled on and off easily, so that blind and sighted people alike can use a single device.

A working group of blind Canadians has been assembled to advocate for accessible touch-screen point of sale devices. Among its participants is the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians. If you are interested in joining, please send an email to accessible-pos-subscribe@blackspheretech.com. To express your concern, you could also contact your bank and local government representatives.

Trends in Adaptive Technology: A Bird’s-Eye View

Editor's Note: Below is an interview with Chris Chamberlin, owner and President of Frontier Computing, a Toronto-based vendor of adaptive products and technologies since 1986. Mr. Chamberlin is a member of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians' (AEBC) Toronto Chapter, and sits on AEBC's Fundraising Committee.

Q. What do you consider to be the most important technological advancements over the past 20 or 25 years for people who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted?

A. One of the most important advancements has been the development of optical character recognition (OCR) programs. Before OCR, blind people really didn't have independent or immediate access to the printed word; now we can read just about anything--except perhaps for materials with images, handwriting or fancy fonts--and the recognition accuracy of the programs is increasing. Books, bills, mail, product/medication directions etc. can often be accessed this way now.

Handheld devices, like PDAs (personal digital assistants) and Apple products, are the other significant development.

Since blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted people don't drive, they need smaller devices that are relatively lightweight and portable, when they're out and about. In the mid to late 1980s, Blazie Engineering brought out the Braille & Speak, with a braille keyboard for input and a speech synthesizer for output. In the mid 1990s, braille displays, which are indispensable for the deaf-blind, came along, and PDAs like the Braille Lite were possible, which provided both speech and braille output. Today, PDAs like the BrailleNote and BrailleSense are easier on the battery.

Apple's products, be it the Mac, iPad, iPod etc., don't have braille output but they have speech output capability built right in. This means they're accessible out of the box and cost less than adaptive technology solutions.

Q. In your experience, what technologies are in most demand and why? Has demand for certain technologies changed over the past 20 to 30 years?

A. Today, laptops outsell desktop computers five to one; perhaps five years ago, it was the opposite. Laptops take up less space, which can be important in college dorms or cluttered home offices, and they are portable--again, important for students and other people on the go. Desktops, however, are more durable and reliable.

We are selling fewer note-taking devices (PDAs) today. Recently, sales dropped from about six to two per month.

Students come to us usually for the Kurzweil scanning/OCR software, as this is the program used by the vast majority of educational institutions. This gives them independent access to many printed texts and other course materials.

Our working-age customers are often government employees, wanting the major screen readers like JAWS and Window Eyes, or screen magnification programs like ZoomText, which typically work well in the Microsoft environment. This hasn't really changed over the years.

A couple of years ago, we started selling small products to help people with vision impairments with daily living, such as braille and talking watches, braille/audio thermostats, braille/large print playing cards, electronic liquid level indicators, and more. Sometimes CNIB refers clients to us or customers learn about our products from our website or email newsletter.

We also carry the relatively recent Pen Friend, a device to make audio labels for everything from frozen food packages and condiment jars in the fridge to CDs and file folders. This product is especially useful for those who do not read or write braille.

Q. In your experience, have the people seeking technology changed over the years? Who are the majority of your customers?

A. These days, we have fewer younger customers than before. Perhaps this is because they are so well integrated into the school system that they already have the products and services they need. Many younger people just go straight for Apple products; while we don't sell Apple products, we do provide training for them. It might also be that more people are partially sighted today, and thus they don't need the higher-tech devices. The average age of our customers is 40 and up, but I hear this is the same in many quarters, including in consumer groups and recreational clubs for the blind. Perhaps this is because the population is aging.

A lot of our customers are high school and university students with learning disabilities. We sell programs to help people with dyslexia and other reading-related difficulties, who don't necessarily also have a vision impairment.

Q. Today, with the aging population and the increase in the survival rate of premature infants--both often resulting in additional disabilities--is technology evolving to meet this need?

A. Frontier Computing sells software to assist people with learning disabilities, particularly high school and post-secondary students with reading-related difficulties.

We also carry devices that use a switch, instead of a mouse or keyboard, for customers who do not have full use of their hands, for example.

For seniors, there is a seniors' guide that loads when they turn on their desktop computer, which really simplifies the interface for them. Instead of pressing combinations of keys, all they need to do is press one button to, say, scan a book or browse the internet.

Q. Over the past 20 or so years, there has been a proliferation of adaptive technology vendors in Ontario. Why is that? Is demand increasing or is there now more government funding available? Is this the same right across Canada?

A. Frontier Computing gets orders from all over Canada, not just Ontario, though we are the largest vendor of vision-related devices authorized by the Ontario Assistive Devices Program (ADP). Vendors can qualify for ADP authorization quite easily, but probably a good 75% shouldn't be in the business because they don't have the resources to support their products or services. The demand for products is pretty constant.

We have had customers in Western and Eastern Canada, though not all provinces have a funding program, or some only have limited resources available. To fund their equipment, students often use bursary money. Other customers save up for a time; I find that those who pay out-of-pocket for equipment "know their stuff" better than those who do get assistance with funding. They invest more time and effort in learning about technology because they're investing more of their own money.

Q. What do you foresee as the technological need for the blind in the next five to ten years? What will developers and manufacturers have to do to meet this need?

A. I foresee more and more devices with accessibility built in as part of the development and manufacturing process. I think Apple has set the bar. People who are blind or partially sighted are already buying Apple products, as well as cell phones from companies like Samsung and Nokia, which can be made somewhat accessible.

It's much more convenient to walk into a local electronics or telecommunications store to buy a mainstream product that's accessible out of the box than to apply for ADP funding (assuming your province offers financial assistance), find an authorized vendor, order the authorized equipment/software, wait for it to be delivered and then be trained on it. That can take months.

For many people across Canada, it will be cheaper to buy a mainstream product with accessibility already built in.

It's very possible that there won't be any need for adaptive technology vendors sometime in the future, at least for those with vision impairments. Theoretically, in any case.

As for Frontier Computing, we might have to look at new ways of training people on their equipment, especially those who do not live in Ontario. There is only so much you can do over the phone or by email. One possibility is to conduct training remotely, over the internet, through webinars or through Skype. Training manuals aren't usually provided in alternative formats these days; they're usually online. Since customers would need an internet connection to access online manuals, they might just be interested in being trained online by our staff.

Q. How has Frontier Computing's profile changed over the years?

A. Frontier Computing has grown a great deal over the years. We carry a large range of products and we're always looking for ways to augment our current lines. Over the last couple of years, we've started selling small blindness-related products for independent living, and this accounts for a good portion of our sales.

Today, programs for persons with learning disabilities, with or without a vision impairment, account for 50% of our business.

At the beginning, when Frontier Computing was established in 1986, we had four employees, but we grew a lot through the 1990s and 2000s. Two years ago, we had 14 employees, but we now have 12, due to the economic downturn.

We're very fortunate to have the level of support we have from the local blind community. We're only too glad to give back by sponsoring events, exhibiting products at conferences, volunteering our time etc.

Technology has taken huge leaps in regard to people who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted but, unfortunately, it has not particularly increased our rate of employment. Employers' attitudes are the key there. I still enjoy working in this field and find it rewarding because I see how technology makes such a difference in people's lives--in education, some aspects of employment, recreation, and simple daily activities.

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.

Acoustic Maps to Aid the Blind

Researchers at the University of Bristol in England have developed a new method to convert images from lasers and digital cameras into real-time, three dimensional acoustic maps that help the blind navigate around obstacles in their path. The images are converted to sounds that get louder as objects get nearer, accurately reflecting their orientation with respect to the user. Coupled with related work from the University of Laguna in Spain and several other institutions, these maps could result in a workable assistive technology for the sight-impaired in the near future.

The Bristol system integrates real-time image processing with new algorithms designed to identify specific objects like trees, furniture and people. The algorithms can also identify objects in motion and predict their trajectory and speed. The images and related data are then transformed to sound using a method designed by scientists at the University of Laguna in Spain. The resulting acoustic maps are fed to blind people through a pair of headphones and thus enable them to navigate successfully around both static and moving obstacles.

The headphones use stereo sound to pinpoint a location in space. The principle is similar to the location tests frequently included in standard hearing tests where sound is fed into only one ear as the patient is asked to identify which side the sound came from. Here, the directional abilities are significantly more robust and take into account the rotational position of the wearer's head at any given moment using an integrated gyroscope developed by scientists at the University of Marche in Italy. Distance is tracked using an intensity factor--the closer the object, the louder the sound created. Imminent collisions cause a loud warning sound to ring, alerting the user to get out of the way.

Two prototypes currently exist--the first prototype uses infrared lasers mounted on the inside of a pair of glasses. With a 60-degree field of view it detects objects up to 5 metres away. The second prototype adds digital cameras on the side of a test helmet worn by users, and by so doing greatly increases the field of view covered by the map. Although not currently integrated into the device, researchers are also exploring the use of an onboard GPS (global positioning) system to help direct wearers away from known, unchanging obstacles. This could free up additional processing power for more applications and allow for improvements in the speed, distance, or angular precision of the detected data.

Considerable testing with both of these prototypes has been very successful, but researchers say more testing is needed before bringing the device to market. In particular, extensive reliability testing must be performed to ensure that the device won't suddenly stop working as a user crosses a busy street or is in some other dangerous situation.

TFOT (The Future of Things) has previously reported on other innovative assistive technologies including a new robot that can open doors for people with problems turning handles, a wheelchair that can react to the thoughts of its users and move accordingly, two devices from Honda that help people walk with a more even stride and to lift and squat more easily, and a personalized user interface that adopts itself to the specific visual and motor abilities of its users.

Read more about the new assistive technology and view a video of it in use in this news site, designed to promote research findings funded by the European Union.

Reprinted from The Future of Things, August 5, 2009.

Why I Do What I Do: Challenge, Community, Equity

From a young age, I realized that I thrive on challenge and on challenging others. I am happiest and most productive if there is some degree of technical or social challenge in my work as a web accessibility consultant. This has contributed to my Socratic teaching style--not imparting knowledge directly but exploring truth through discussion and asking a series of questions. When making presentations, I feel like I have failed if the participants leave the session not thinking about what they have learned, but simply knowing what they have learned.

A story that I often tell to emphasize my disdain for rote memorization in education comes from my experience in grade seven science class. In a unit on conservation, the teacher asked, "What takes less water, a shower or a bath?" One of the students answered--the answer I forget--and the teacher told the student that she was correct. I then challenged the teacher, explaining as well as I was able in grade seven, that there was not enough information available for anyone to provide a valid answer. After grappling with the teacher over the specifics of the problem, to no avail, I was informed that I was incorrect, because the correct answer was in the textbook!

Many people try to sell accessibility as something simple, something that doesn't have any effect on the total cost of a project. As much as I wish these two statements were true, they simply are not. Technical challenges abound when attempting to make an information system accessible to all persons, including those with disabilities. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) can take us a long way to ensuring that a web-based information system is accessible. There are, however, many complexities that simply memorizing and applying these guidelines do not address. WCAG 2.0 is a set of guidelines--that's all. They are important and useful, but not all accessibility barriers are adequately addressed by them, and for these situations pros are required.

I LOVE community. I was fortunate to spend several years in the tiny town of St. Stephen, New Brunswick, and to attend a private university where class sizes were often under 20. While studying there, I took the opportunity to read opinions from authors over the years about community. I believe that humans are meant to participate in community. We are designed to seek heterogeneity (which in itself isn't necessarily a good thing). Our need for community, balanced with an appreciation of the value that can be brought by those who are different from ourselves, is what fuels our sense of self, while at the same time allows us to be a meaningful part of something larger than ourselves.

None of the three technical communities to which I belong--Drupal (free, open-source software anyone can use to create and manage websites), the Fluid Project (an Inclusive Design Research Centre initiative) and the HTML Accessibility Task Force of W3C (World Wide Web Consortium)--is simply a factory of beings with the appropriate skills to deliver a product. Rather, each community is comprised of passionate and caring people who invest them selves into the product, the production process, and the lives of others within the community. As with all communities, this can lead to grumpy days (even weeks or months!) where people's feelings get hurt. I find it incredibly frustrating when decisions with which I disagree are made within these communities. This makes me grumpy (nothing that a dozen samosas can't solve), but I wouldn't have it any other way. The fact that my feelings get hurt, and that I sometimes hurt the feelings of others, means that we actually care enough about what we are doing to be hurt. This is essential for me to be an effective and efficient worker, even if during the most stressful times my diet may suffer!

Without challenge and community, I wouldn't have the necessary drive and energy to work towards greater equity. Truth be told, as a blind user and consumer of information technology, I have a greater stake than some others in ensuring that the information systems that I may potentially use are accessible. More importantly, I truly believe that "all persons have equal value." I do not believe that all persons have equal ability. Since the assignment of individual ability is completely arbitrary, I do not believe that a person's abilities reflect on their value to society.

I cannot make the world a completely equitable place for all persons. There are many who suffer needlessly in ways that are far worse than not having access to online poker, a dating site, or to commenting on a popular blog or news site. But contributing my arbitrary skills towards making the web a more inclusive and equitable ecosystem for all who have access to it, so that we can communicate and participate in life together, is one of the ways in which I can, and do, contribute to society as a whole.

Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ezufelt

View my LinkedIn Profile: http://www.linkedin.com/in/ezufelt

Adapted from Everett Zufelt’s blog, October 3, 2010: http://www.zufelt.ca/blog

Blind Student Checks Tech for College's Accessibility

Barrie--Georgian College student Matthew Campbell identifies--and removes--barriers many can't see. That's because he's blind.

A graduate of the W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind in Brantford, the 22-year-old Parry Sound man is now enrolled in Georgian's computer systems technician program. In addition to his studies, he's completing his first co-op placement as an accessibility specialist in the information technology department.

He chose Georgian because the college was already more accessible than others--but that's only encouraging him to make it even more so.

"Georgian seemed to have a lot of information on its website about helping students with disabilities and a lot of colleges didn't," he said. "I had a hard time finding a computer technician program. I found 'help desk support', and I don't want to do that. I want to be the guy who runs around the building fixing things."

Like others in the I.T. (information technology) business, Campbell loves technology and exploring how various devices, programs and applications can work together. He has both an Apple Mac laptop and a Windows notebook--and is awaiting the arrival of an iPhone.

His focus as an I.T. co-op student has been the same website that attracted him to Georgian in the first place.

"I'd like to see the college move a little quicker away from Adobe's flash technology, which is being used to display video on a web page. Adobe has a very sad attitude when it comes to accessibility, especially for the Mac user," he said. "Flash is a nightmare to navigate and work with using a screen-reading program." Screen reading is built into Apple computers, he noted, while on Windows-based systems the accessibility tool must be purchased separately.

He has suggested the college give blind students a tour by adding better audio descriptions of the campus, rather than relying so heavily on the camera. "If someone developed a website with descriptive labels for images, we could get an idea of what the image is showing," he said, adding that in many cases--from email links to websites--any text on the page, rather than an icon, would give information to the visually impaired.

Graduating from the Macdonald School, Campbell has more experience with other adaptive technologies, and is working to make the college's website work with those specialized devices as well.

He's also excited by the possibilities of mainstream technology--and making it even more useful for those with disabilities. Applications for the iPhone abound (not to mention the phone has a screen-reading "voice"), and he's looking to explore how to make them work with specialized programs and devices. "I'd like to get into that, too," he said. "There are lots of possibilities.

His supervisor, web usability analyst Monika Bernolak, said that experience is a valuable asset. "We have all kinds of reports and he's given us numerous suggestions. We're listening to him, to learn and improve our pages accordingly," she said. "He tests projects for us before they go live and lets us know how we can improve. It's very important in light of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, which Georgian College is strongly committed to."

Made law in 2005, the AODA sets out a series of targets to break down barriers: customer service, the built environment, employment, communication and transportation. Municipalities and public agencies must, by January, offer good customer service to all--regardless of ability or disability. Stores and others in the business of customer service have until January 2012.

Just after that, information and communication must be accessible by 2013 in the private sector. All other compliance dates have yet to be determined. The goal of the AODA is to make the province totally accessible by 2025.

"(More) companies are thinking about accessibility and how to build it into mainstream products. It's pretty sad a lot of other (technology companies) are not following Apple and making it accessible," Campbell said. "(People with disabilities) may be a minority, but we do make up market share."

As part of his co-op placement, Campbell also has an accessibility blog, at www.georgianc.on.ca/accessibility.

In September, Campbell returns to his in-class studies. One thing he will depend on isn't technical at all--but critically important in helping him make his way around: his guide dog Lillibelle.

"You'd be surprised at how many people have dogs," he said, adding he asks people not to pat the black lab while she is working. "Ask, don't assume, you can (pat the dog). Petting a dog that's working is unwise, potentially dangerous," he said, adding he's fortunate he's had no close calls due to Lillibelle being distracted from her duties.

In January, in his next co-op placement, he may be back focusing on accessibility at Georgian. At least Bernolak hopes so. "He's been a great asset," she said.

Reprinted from The Barrie Advance, Simcoe.com, Ontario, August 25, 2010.

Coalition Condemns CRTC Decision on Shaw/Global

A coalition of Canada's accessibility organizations has condemned the CRTC's (Canada Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission) decision to approve Shaw's acquisition of the former Canwest television and specialty TV services.

"The CRTC's dismissal of recommendations that would have increased and improved accessible television content across Canada for all Canadians with visual or hearing disabilities, means that this country has lost a rare opportunity to make real and permanent progress towards a 100% accessible broadcast day," said Beverley Milligan, Acting President and CEO of Media Access Canada (MAC).

The organizations say the CRTC ignored detailed proposals they made to increase the level and quality of all types of accessibility throughout the Canadian broadcasting system.

The coalition of accessibility groups argued that the CRTC should adopt their recommendations to ensure that Canadian television programming becomes fully accessible within a reasonable time frame--not the 26 years they say it took to achieve a fully captioned broadcast day.

The groups opposed Shaw's proposal to allocate $3 million (1.7% of its tangible benefits package) to descriptive video because, they say, with an average hourly cost of $2000 for descriptive video, Shaw's annual expenditure could yield just less than five hours of described programming per week.

Currently, the CRTC requires a total of four hours of described video each week (of which only two hours need be original content).

"The CRTC should have empowered the accessibility community to reduce the hourly costs of fully-accessible TV programming so that more broadcasters would carry more described video content every week," said John Rae of the (Alliance) for Equality of Blind Canadians. "Suppose that in seven years, Canadians with visual disabilities receive 10 hours per week of described video. That still leaves 116 hours a week that are inaccessible: why do these Canadians have to pay as much as everyone else, when they can only benefit from 9% of the programs they pay for?"

The coalition led by MAC appeared before the CRTC in Calgary and recommended the CRTC adopt ten proposals to increase the quantity and quality of accessible programming content, through funding from an endowment worth 0.5% of Shaw's $2 billion purchase of Canwest.

"We are very disappointed that the CRTC ignored our requests for positive, long-term change to permit all Canadians to be informed, enlightened and entertained by their broadcasting system," said Laurie Beachell, National Coordinator of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities.

"We have to wonder whether the CRTC really considered our recommendations. It's extremely disappointing that the CRTC's laissez-faire approach will take decades to ensure that all television programming is fully accessible to all Canadians," added Chris Kenopic, President and CEO of The Canadian Hearing Society.

Reprinted from Broadcaster Magazine, October 25, 2010.

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/

Our Rights, Our Future: A Rights-Holder Perspective

Editor's Note: The following are notes for the President's Report delivered by Robin at the opening of AEBC's 2010 Conference and Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Montreal, Quebec.

I would like to welcome all of you to our Conference and AGM in Montreal. I am sure you will enjoy your visit here. I hope you meet some old friends and get acquainted with some new folks from across the country. Please join me in thanking the organizing committee--Anthony Tibbs, Marc Workman, Natalie Martiniello, Heather Rupert, Rosie Arcuri, Ezra Chitayat, Paulo Monteagudo--and the rest of the Montreal Chapter for working hundreds of hours to make this weekend a success.

I would also like to thank the 2009-10 Board of Directors for their commitment of valuable time and hard work to the AEBC. Each National Board member devotes many hours each week to promote the goals and objectives of our organization. Denise Sanders is leaving the Board after serving four terms, two each as Treasurer and Director Without Portfolio. She plans to stay involved on the Communications Working Group and will continue to participate with the Kelowna Chapter.

Welcome to all the new members who have joined AEBC during the past year.

To all the Chapters, I thank Executive members for their commitment to the work of AEBC. Also, I would like to thank the Affiliate for all its hard work in British Columbia. Further thanks go out to our National Committees, including scholarship, finance/fundraising, human resources, membership and policy development, and their many working groups.

I am pleased to report that, for the 2009-10 academic year, AEBC awarded three scholarships and two bursaries: The AEBC Rick Oakes Scholarship for the Arts to Mr. Allan Angus; The AEBC National Achievement Scholarship to Mr. Anthony Tibbs; The Alan H. Neville Memorial Scholarship to Ms. Helen McFadyen; The Reverend Leslie Ball Bursary for the Performing Arts to Mr. Koceïla Louali; and The Reverend Leslie Ball Bursary for Vocational Training and Trades to Ms. Stephanie Berry. Congratulations to the winners. We wish them all the best in their studies and future plans.

AEBC has been very active during the past year. Discussions have taken place over the past several months between representatives of consumer organizations of blind Canadians, CNIB, the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada and the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. These discussions have been aimed at drafting recommendations on how a new network hub responsible for coordinating access to library services for print disabled Canadians should be designed and operated. Final recommendations were submitted to Library and Archives Canada (LAC), which is drafting a proposal to be sent to Cabinet. There will be future opportunities for AEBC and individual members to have further input into this process.

AEBC’s National Board of Directors has approved these recommendations with one exception: we have a membership resolution in place stating that any entity like the one being proposed be government run and operated. This resolution prevents the AEBC from endorsing that particular recommendation; however, the Board supports the remaining recommendations.

AEBC has also been meeting with other national rights-holder organizations and CNIB to attempt to form a national coalition that will work collaboratively on common issues. The main purpose of these meetings was to build on some of the momentum established over the last several months as these and other disability groups worked on the library issue.

Everyone seemed to agree that the working relationship was positive and productive, but if it is to continue operating as anything more than an ad hoc coalition, we needed to determine and clearly articulate the structure, roles and operations of the coalition and its various member organizations. In May, the groups met for two days in Toronto, and developed terms of reference for the Coalition. Each participating organization is to discuss the outcome of these meetings, and indicate its participation in the coalition. It is expected the groups will not meet again until the fall of 2010, and in the meantime work is to begin on access to PIN-and-card and point-of-sale devices.

A resolution will be introduced to you, the members, at this Conference to endorse AEBC's participation in this coalition.

Over the past year, the AEBC National Board has been engaged in a comprehensive review of our activities. Our goal has been to determine those areas where we are most effective, and those in which our performance or effectiveness could be improved. Discussion of this review will take place at this Conference.

We also need to work on our communications strategy. The present redesign of the national website will go a long way toward addressing this concern, by collecting information on each “issue” (elections, quiet cars, education, etc.) into a central location; however, our internal communications (among Chapters, members and the National Board) also needs an overhaul. This Conference will give you the opportunity, as members, to participate in determining how AEBC will go about communicating our future activities to you. The final plan will need "buy-in" from all levels of the organization--Chapters, committees and the National Board--to be successful.

Several years ago, Donna Jodhan, our 2nd Vice President, launched a Charter case in which she is challenging the Canadian government over inaccessible websites and unequal access to information. Donna, with her lawyers and supporters, including AEBC, has been fighting to force the federal government to make its websites and information accessible and usable. Unfortunately, to date, the Canadian government has ignored all requests to settle this ongoing action. Donna's case, on behalf of all Blind Canadians, will be heard in federal court on September 21-23, 2010. The AEBC fully supports this landmark access case, and we urge members of our community to come out and show their support. (Editor’s Note: Please see “Challenging the System” elsewhere in these pages for further details and an update on the case.)

AEBC continues to submit briefs and make presentations on issues of concern. More and more, we are being recognized by all levels of government as the real voice of Canadians with significant vision impairment.

Our activities over the past year (2009-10) have included: meeting with representatives from the Office of Disability Issues re a national ID card; hosting Michel Grenier, Director of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) at our November Board meeting; making a presentation to the review of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA); a presentation on poverty to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development (HRSD); presenting Webzine on the AODA and the Accessibility Standards development process for Citizens With Disabilities-Ontario (CWDO); a presentation to the Standing Committee on Social Policy for Bill 152, an act respecting a long-term strategy to reduce poverty in Ontario; meeting with HRSD Canada Special Advisor to Minister to discuss funding, hybrid cars, electronic voting, library issues etc.; participating in Canada Transportation Agency Advisory Committee meetings; Speaking on advocacy and facilitating a workshop at the annual Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) Action Coalition Conference, entitled Leading the Way: Developing a Poverty Reduction Strategy for People with Disabilities; speaking on a panel at Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: Taking Action on Poverty, Poor Health and Bad Jobs, sponsored by the Toronto Social Planning Council; and attending the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly on the introduction of the Blind Voters Rights Bill.

Briefs and position papers we have submitted include: Electoral Accessibility: A Key to Equality, to the Standing Committee on the Legislative Assembly of Ontario; Status of the AODA; Copyright Consultation; National Economic Strategy, to the Standing Committee on Finance; Review of the Municipal Elections Act, to the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing; Bill 152, an act respecting a long-term strategy to reduce poverty in Ontario, to the Standing Committee on Social Policy; and Information and Communication Accessibility Standard (ICAS), to the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services.

More details on our activities can be found by visiting our website: http://www.blindcanadians.ca (Editor’s Note: Also see “Headlines & Highlights” in these pages for updated information).

Finally, some AEBC members believe our organization would be more successful if we concentrated our efforts on fewer issues. This is an understandable view but potentially problematic, due to the vast number of other barriers blind Canadians continue to face daily. We, as a national organization and the voice of the blind, cannot ignore these issues. However, I believe that becoming more focused on a few issues can be achieved, as long as we still recognize there are many issues related to blindness that need to be addressed, albeit at a lower priority.

Over the past few months, the AEBC Board has been discussing the idea of trying to find three to five "issues" that we, as an organization, can prioritize so that our actions are focused and more effective. A large list of issues that matter to blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted members was drawn up primarily from the brainstorming session at the face-to-face Board meeting that took place in Toronto. We started out with a list of more than 20 items, which we then proceeded to merge and eliminate, combine and rewrite. We also recently conducted a poll among the membership to ascertain which issues you consider the most important. The results will help guide the discussions at this year's Conference.

The outcome of these discussions, in many ways, will be a difficult task for each of you to consider. The issues are all very important, and it will be hard to choose a few that deserve to have a higher priority than others. However, we need to face the question of whether we can achieve more by becoming focused.

An AEBC member is a rights-holder who inspires empowerment and addresses our rights for the future.

Each member of this organization needs to advocate and be part of the common voice of the blind. We, as a community, need to work together, speak out, and take action. We must work in our local Chapters, through our National Committee's, and as a national voice to ensure our rights are entrenched. Our advocacy must become focused, and yet we must continue to address the wide range of barriers we face.

Our rights and our future are in your hands.

New Resources

Editor's Note: Compiled by John Rae, AEBC 1st Vice President

- A growing number of Canadians are realizing that success in combating poverty depends on action being rooted in a strong human rights framework. To watch a 9-minute video entitled The Story of Human Rights, go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ot8YGiRtB7U

- Critical Disability Discourse (CDD) is an online, bilingual, interdisciplinary journal that publishes articles focusing on disability experiences. Access the journal at: https://pi.library.yorku.ca/ojs/index.php/cdd/index

- "The Consumer Vision" is a publication covering topics of interest to people with disabilities. To read past issues, visit http://www.consumervisionmagazine.com. For information, contact Bob Branco at branco182@worldnet.att.net or 508-994-4972.

- The American Foundation for the Blind is offering a reduced rate for its individual subscriptions to the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (JVIB). For $65 (U.S.) individual subscribers receive 12 print issues of the journal and online access to more than 10 years of content. A one-year online individual subscription costs $25 (non-U.S. subscribers will be charged an additional $36 for shipping&handling). Contact AFB Press at 800-232-3044, email afbpress@afb.net or visit: http://www.afb.org/jvibspecial.asp

- ABISee offers the Eye-Pal SOLO, a self-contained device that instantly reads from newspapers, books, magazines etc. Simply place a document face up on the device, and it reads the printed material aloud. It can also output magnified text to a screen. Requires no computer skills or sighted assistance. Learn more at: http://www.abisee.com

- HumanWare recently released its Orator software for BlackBerry Smartphones. This screen reader application enables blind users to access and operate BlackBerry Smartphones. For further information, visit: http://www.humanware.com

- The Audio Dart Master is a fully speaking electronic dartboard featuring talking menus and game instructions, announcements of every hit, inside and outside indicators, large buttons and more. Dart games offered include various countdowns, high score, golf, baseball and cricket. Also available are a portable stand, roll-out carpet and tactile toe line. Visit http://www.audiodartmaster.com or call (763) 383-0077.

- "Stitch by Stitch: Sewing with Low Vision" is a 185-page book providing detailed descriptions and large images of adaptive techniques and tools for such crafts as sewing, knitting and embroidery. Also included is a chapter on locating low vision aids. Available in large print only, for $25 (U.S.). Contact Horizons for the Blind at (815) 444-8800, or email: mail@horizons-blind.org

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