Last year Donna Jodhan, with a Master in Business Administration (MBA) in international business and finance from McGill University and certified computer skills with Microsoft and Novell programs, took the Government of Canada to court, claiming the government’s online job application process was inaccessible to individuals who are blind and sight impaired.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is one of the very few pieces of legislation available to Canadians with disabilities when pursuing accessible issues via the justice system. Section 15(1) reads:
Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.
Ms. Jodhan argued “that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees blind and visually impaired Canadians the same access to government websites as everyone else.” She asked that “the government to work with experts and visually impaired users to ensure that crucial services like job application forms are accessible.” (From Bakerlaw’s press release (PDF file).)
Being the first web accessibility case to challenge the Charter, this was a landmark case in Canada. Web accessibility had finally come of age in our country. In November, Federal Justice Kelen ruled, in part, “The failure of the government to monitor and ensure compliance with the government’s 2001 accessibility standards is an infringement of section 15(1) of the Charter since it discriminates against the applicant and other visually impaired persons” (Donna Jodhan v Attorney General of Canada, p72, PDF file).
Kelen’s reasoning, in part, included:
the visually impaired have not been “reasonably accommodated” because they allegedly can obtain the same information available online by other channels, namely in person, by telephone and by mail. These other channels are difficult to access, less reliable and not complete. Moreover, they fail to provide the visually impaired with independent access or the same dignity and convenience as the services online. The Supreme Court of Canada makes unequivocally clear that such alternatives do not constitute “substantively equal” treatment;
for the blind and visually impaired, accessing information and services online gives them independence, self-reliance, control, ease of access, dignity and self-esteem. A person is not handicapped if she does not need help. Making the government online information and services accessible provides the visually impaired with “substantive equality”. This is like the ramp to permit wheelchair access to a building. It is a ramp for the blind to access online services. (p69
The government was ordered to make its websites accessible to people with sight impairments within 15 months.
This was a great opportunity for the Government of Canada to lead the public’s awareness of the ability of people with sight impairments to use computers and the internet out of the Dark Ages reflected in the comment sections of the various CBC news stories.
However, last week, the government announced its intentions to appeal the decision. Government lawyers argue there was no discrimination because those same services are provided in other formats, such as on the phone, in person or by mail.
How is applying for a job via phone, in person or by mail the same as applying online? How is this equal access? Share your thoughts in the comment section.