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AEBC at the Canadian Telecom Summit

By Marcia Yale


I was honoured to recently attend the Canadian Telecom Summit in Toronto representing AEBC. At the event, I participated on a panel discussion entitled, “Approaching Innovation and Accessibility in Telecommunications.” The panel featured Stephanie Cadieux (Canada’s Chief Accessibility Officer) as Moderator, and on the panel along with me was Adam Balkovec (CRTC Senior Legal Counsel), Harry Lew (Neil Squire Society) and Michael Gottheil (Chief Accessibility Commissioner).


Ms. Cadieux spoke about how the Accessible Canada Act has been in place for five years with the supporting Government and CRTC regulations in place for two. In addition, a new standard was adopted for Accessible Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Products and Services in the past month, aligning with the new EU standard. Although progress has been made in the past two years, there is still work that needs to be done by all stakeholders. The regulations are divided up into areas of focus with each area overseen by different regulatory bodies (CRTC and the Accessibility Commissioner), which doesn’t make it any easier to understand what the Accessible Canada Act means in practical terms when developing products and/or services.


Ms. Cadieux then introduced the panel:

  • Adam Balkovec is Senior Legal Counsel at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). In this role, he advises CRTC staff and Commissioners on a range of issues dealing with the intersection of law, technology and the public interest, including the implementation of the Accessible Canada Act, the Online Streaming Act and the Online News Act.


  • Marcia Yale, National President of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians. She currently represents AEBC in the leadership group of the Canadian Disability Network and is also the Chair of the Board of the Broadcasting Accessibility Fund.


  • Harry Lew is the Manager of Research & Development at the Neil Squire Society, a Canadian not-for-profit that uses technology to create greater independence for people with disabilities. He has a degree in Electrical Engineering and is a Professional Engineer.


  • Michael Gottheil is Canada's first Accessibility Commissioner, appointed under the Accessible Canada Act in May 2022. Mr. Gottheil brings many years of leadership experience in the Administrative Justice sector, is a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School, and has written widely on human rights, accessibility and inclusion, administrative law, institutional design and alternative models of dispute resolution.


Ms. Cadieux then asked us the questions we had agreed to answer. Here are the basic ideas we put forward:


1. How can accessibility groups work with Government?


Mr. Gottheil stated: “After years of pushing for change, people with disabilities, their families, friends and allies in Canada shaped groundbreaking legislation into what is known today as the Accessible Canada Act. The Accessible Canada Act is about much more than “culture change.” Regulations in priority areas are being developed and will spur systemic change that will remove and prevent barriers for those of us with disabilities. The Accessible Canada Act places the responsibility on federally regulated organizations to make organizations and their operations more accessible. Organizations need to take their responsibilities seriously if we are to achieve an Accessible Canada by 2040. My office is committed to doing everything we can to ensure full compliance with the Accessible Canada regulations and to improve accessibility in Canada for all, but everyone has a role to play. The ultimate goal of the Accessible Canada Act is to ensure a Barrier-free Canada that supports equality and justice for people with disabilities. There is a long road ahead, but if everyone

works together, we can create a society where everyone can feel included and can live the life of their choosing, free of barriers.”


Ms. Cadieux then turned to Mr. Balkovec, who commented: “The Accessible Canada Act and its regulations require all federal government departments and agencies to put mechanisms in place that allow members of the public to easily share their accessibility feedback. They also have to consult people with disabilities on at least an annual basis to get input on their accessibility goals and progress. These mechanisms have helped the CRTC better understand barriers that might exist and how they can be addressed. To give a few examples, we’ve heard that we need to build more relationships with a wide range of accessibility organizations. We’ve heard that the timelines for our public proceedings should be longer. We’ve heard that we should publish information using more plain language. We’ve heard that we should present more information using sign language. We’re working on all of these things as a direct result of the input we’ve received through these mechanisms.


2. How can accessibility groups work with industry?


Mr. Lew was first to speak: “Accessibility is an opportunity for industry: It is not only a disability related issue but also an aging population issue and an issue for people that acquire a temporary disability. It is important to consciously design accessibility into products and services. The definition of the digital economy is changing and shifting--not just traditional cellular (voice and text) also, internet-based services, voice assistants, AI, home automation, and video calling. It is important that people with disabilities can access these new services as they benefit the most from them. Features for people with disabilities also get adopted by the general consumer marketplace. There are challenges of it being a regulatory and complaint-based process given lack of bandwidth and technical capacity from the accessibility community. Also access to information on accessibility from vendors is not easy to get. There is a lack of access to information about accessibility plans, accommodations (products and services), and good and appropriate customer service.”


It was finally my turn, and I spoke about how we need to be able to show the gains there are when things are accessible, we need to encourage projects that will increase accessibility, and which will also help the industry get what it wants. The Broadcasting Accessibility Fund has been doing it since 2014 and we could expand given adequate funding—we could find the projects and give grants and help them get off the ground.


3. How do we get there together?


Mr. Lew stated: “Accessibility is still an afterthought. With an aging population it needs to be part of the product road map and seen as an opportunity. There is a need for a change in mindset from being a regulatory requirement to being a market opportunity. What is the role of CTA in this process? Every organization has a responsibility. It is a mistake to assume it is just a checkbox that needs to be ticked off. It needs to be part of a more pro-active road map within organizations. There is a need for a great awareness of accessibility standards and more active participation in the standards process from all stakeholders."


Mr. Balkovec added: “The CRTC, as a regulatory tribunal, holds public consultations before it makes decisions. If you want your views taken into account in our decision-making, you need to participate. Because legally we can only consider the evidence on the record in front of us. But it’s a two-way street. For our part, we are committed to making it as simple as possible to participate in a meaningful way. We have accessibility measures we put in place: accessible documents, live-captioning, longer deadlines in some cases. And if ever these are not responsive, you can request accommodations. We’re working on a public guide to explain how these processes work in clear and simple language. Commission proceedings are also a great public forum to exchange ideas, make connections, etc. And it will help you understand what industry is thinking about a particular issue. It’s worth noting that government regulators also talk regularly to ensure our approaches are coordinated. And, of course, our moderator, Stephanie is constantly monitoring and suggesting improvements to the Accessible Canada Act and the way it’s being implemented. Her reports are public, and I encourage everyone to read them.


I was next, and how could I add much to what they had already said? I spoke of how we need to collaborate, need to change from the competitive model to one of knowing who does the best work and agreeing that there is a place for everyone.


4. Identifying & approaching accessibility challenges in Canadian telecommunications.


Mr. Gottheil was first: “I will share an anecdote of an accessibility challenge. I was using an app and after running an update, it was no longer accessible."


My turn again! "Many challenges are the result of inaccessible equipment—we need to get people with disabilities involved in the development and design phases of new product manufacturing.""


Mr. Balkovec was next: “To give just a few examples: As part of its implementation of the Online Streaming Act, the CRTC has announced that it will be looking at accessibility of streaming services. I would encourage everyone to check back with us, we hope to announce something very shortly. I would encourage everyone to participate in those proceedings when they’re launched. We’ve also been examining the Video Relay Service, which allows sign language users to make telephone calls with hearing users. That’s been a really innovative and fulsome process. We’ve really tried our best to get the best possible evidence based on the personal experience of those who use the service. That includes allowing sign language videos to be filed, and actually holding live consultation sessions with sign language interpretation that were all incorporated into the record of the proceeding. We hope to have something on that this year that hopefully allows the VRS to continue as a made-in-Canada success story.”


5. Potential methods of applying an innovative approach to accessibility solutions.


Mr. Balkovec responded first: “At a high level, we try to meet people where they are: by making our processes and practices more accessible and including less formal ways for people to engage with us and share their opinions. Of course, we’re aware that it’s not the regulator that is necessarily going to create new technology, but we can play a role in standardization, proliferation, etc. As well as in potentially creating guardrails to make sure technology actually serves persons with disabilities (and the public interest). We know investments in research are important. The CRTC doesn’t have the power to award grants, but we’re looking into the possibility of partnering with organizations that do – such as Accessibility Standards Canada. Private organizations have more flexibility in that regard."


It was time for my final comment: "We need to listen to the consumers—what they want, what they need. We need to encourage thinking outside of the box."


Mr. Gottheil spoke next: “We need approaches aligned with Accessible Canada Act obligations but related to meaningful consultation with people with disabilities. Involve people with disabilities at all stages of the process, including the development of the consultation plan. Involve people with different kinds of disabilities. Listen to people with disabilities, have an open mind, and consider their input before making final decisions. Give advance notice about opportunities to participate in consultations. Provide clear explanations about the purpose and format of consultations. Tailor questions to address barriers people may encounter--and be sure to ask about attitudinal barriers. Consult in different formats to reach a broader audience. Ways we can begin to enact change: insist that consultation is a two-way learning experience and a reciprocal relationship. Place greater value and understanding on what we mean when we seek out “lived experience.” Amplify the voices of the disability community. Other ideas that are outside the regulatory requirements--co-development and user testing with people with disabilities. For example, we applied this approach to the development of our My Accessibility Portal."


Mr. Lew concluded: “There are challenges of prescriptive standards, the need for more performance-based standards and methods to future proof accessibility requirements, including some Accessibility Standards Canada supported work.”


Ms. Cadieux then turned the mic over to Richard Jirka who conducted a question-and-answer period with the audience.


All in all, I was very happy with the session—in fact, when I considered the company I was in, I wondered how little ol’ me had managed to land a gig with the Chief Accessibility Officer and the Accessibility Commissioner!


FEATURED IMAGE ALT TEXT: Graphic showing a silhouette of the Toronto skyline with logo of the Canadian Telecom Summit.

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