OTTAWA, ON (December 2, 2020) -The Government of Canada is fighting a small registered charity and not-for-profit organization in court and refusing to ensure that its websites are accessible to blind, deafblind and partially sighted Canadians. In 2019, the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (“AEBC”) brought a human rights complaint against the Government of Canada because its websites are inaccessible to blind, deafblind and partially sighted Canadians. In particular, the complaint alleged that blind, deafblind and partially sighted Canadians were discriminated against in the context of a funding application process created by Employment and Social Development Canada (“ESDC”) specifically for organizations for people with disabilities. Because the funding application’s website was inaccessible to its employees, the AEBC was denied the opportunity to apply for this funding. The complaint alleged that this amounted to discrimination prohibited under section 5 of the Canadian Human Rights Act.
The AEBC had hoped that the Government of Canada would negotiate a resolution to the complaint and work to ensure that its websites were accessible to blind, deafblind and partially sighted Canadians. Rather, the Government of Canada instructed its lawyers to have the complaint dismissed on a legal technicality arguing that the complaint should not proceed because it was made by a not-for-profit organization rather than a person. On August 18, 2020, the AEBC sought judicial review of the Commission’s decision to dismiss the complaint before the Federal Court of Canada. A few weeks later, on September 4, 2020, the Government of Canada filed a notice of appearance signaling its intention to fight the AEBC in court. The AEBC has also brought this matter to the attention of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Dean Steacy, a representative from the AEBC, is disappointed by the Government of Canada’s decision to fight the organization in court. “ESDC and Minister Qualtrough have chosen to fight this complaint rather than resolving it through mediation. The ministers and ESDC’s inaction when it comes to dealing with disability issues is disappointing to say the least. AEBC was forced to file this complaint and go to the United Nations because the ESDC’s website was not accessible [nor] usable by the blind. In our opinion, this is an easy fix.” In response to the Commission’s decision, Mr. Steacy has stated that “[t]he Commission chose to dismiss the complaint when it could’ve taken the opportunity to advance human rights, specifically eliminating a barrier that faces the blind community by moving the complaint on to tribunal.” The AEBC is defended by Anne Levesque, a human rights lawyer and University of Ottawa law professor, who is acting on a pro bono basis. Professor Levesque is assisted by law students, Léa Desjardins and Alex-Ann Rousseau, who are taking part in a human rights internship at the university’s law school. On the matter, Professor Levesque has said, “The Government of Canada should be a leader in the area of website accessibility. Accessible websites are essential for the inclusion and full participation of blind, deafblind and partially sighted people, particularly during the pandemic when people rely on government information for their health and safety. It is a shame that the government is spending taxpayer dollars on lawyers fighting the complaint rather than working with the AEBC to make its websites accessible.” However, instead of being a leader on this issue, the Government of Canada has lagged behind and continues to discriminate against visually impaired persons in the design of its websites. Levesque hopes that the Government of Canada will revisit its position on December 3, 2020, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians is a national not-for-profit organization and registered charity composed of Canadians who are blind, deafblind or partially sighted. The AEBC is concerned with ensuring that blind, deafblind and partially sighted voices are heard on matters affecting their participation in mainstream society. They also advocate to change public perceptions of visually impaired Canadians and to encourage their full access and participation in the benefits and opportunities of society.
In 2019, the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians filed a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission raising concerns over the inaccessibility of the web platform used by a federal website for a grant-funding application process. The Employment and Social Development Canada application processes were not accessible for blind, deafblind and partially sighted individuals. This inaccessible service contravenes section 5 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of several factors, including disability. The Commission later declined to deal with the complaint brought forth by the AEBC on the basis that the complaint fell outside of their jurisdiction as it was brought forward by a not-for-profit organization rather than an individual and never considered the fact that the AEBC is a registered charity working for the public interest.