Government Websites: Where Is The Canadian Human Rights Commission?

By Victor Schwartzman

A recent article in Accessibility News—Toronto Woman Wins Second Victory Ordering Government Websites Accessible to Blind (http://www.thestar.com/news/article/1203749–toronto-woman-wins-second-victory-ordering-government-websites-accessible-to-blind) illustrates the depth of the problems blind people look at.

If that last phrase was a bad joke, the Government’s actions are worse.

The Government, supposed to be our rights protector and enforcer, instead continues to fight making its own websites fully accessible. The article mentions a lack of access to possible employment, which is certainly an important problem. But the situation is worse than that.

Government websites are a basic source of information about the law and how it is applied. The sites also provide very convenient contact with Government staff and politicians. That information and access is and should be available to all citizens. The blind are not only denied protections by their protectors, they are also denied fundamental Government information and access available to everyone else.

Donna Jodhan deserves our respect and gratitude for pursuing a personal case on behalf of all sight impaired people in Canada, and also for those outside Canada who need to access Government web pages. Without individuals such as Ms. Jodhan, there would be no progress at all.

That said—and her accomplishment is important to note up front—what’s gonna happen now? Answer: unless someone new steps in, zero.

First, the history is that the Government, rather than voluntarily making all of its sites accessible, had to be sued. And when it lost, the Government appealed on reasons which can only be described as indescribable. Now our Government (unless you are blind) is “reviewing” the decision: translation: it is thinking about appealing again. An automatic support of the court decision would have sent one message. The Government chose to send another.

Don’t laugh, but the Government should be the model for business and other groups to follow. Our Government’s model is like one of those plastic airplane models one struggled to build as a child: the government’s sites are made of plastic, glued together sloppily, with broken and missing parts, and in the real world would never fly.

Second, apart from fighting in court to keep its websites inaccessible, the Government has a slacker’s approach to correcting the websites on its own. It has introduced a policy. Wow. Likely that policy reads great on paper, and you can bet they have a Braille version. And, since blind people likely will have difficulty accessing that policy on all its sites, the Government has a way of blind people knowing about this policy about them. As the Government noted in its defence, unlike anyone else you have to go down to a Government office, if there is one near where you live, and then wait in line for a while, and hope there is a Braille version there. If that is not equality, what is?

Third, where is the Canadian Human Rights Commission in all this? Hard to say, as the article does not mention it. Does not the CHRC have jurisdiction over federal websites? Was not the CHRC aware of the problem five years ago or earlier? Why did it take a Canadian hero like Donna Jodhan to force the Government to court? Is not that the CHRC’s job?

Is it that the CHRC does not have computers, and is not aware that the Government has websites? Does the CHRC know about the internet? Shall we help the CHRC by introducing it to electricity?

That the CHRC enter the twenty-first century is important. The Judge would not order supervision of the Government’s sites. That leaves the Government to supervise itself, and since it fought against making all of its sites accessible, this definitely raises some thorny internal justice problems (or would if the Government took seriously the issue of ensuring blind people have the same access to its services as anyone else.)

Rarely has the Government’s lack of interest in disability issues been so obvious as it is here. That means that the Government cannot be left to supervise itself.

The article leaves the impression that there is no organization available to “supervise” the Government to ensure it follows the court order. But there is an organization which has a mandate to do exactly that: the Canadian Human Rights Commission. It is the responsibility of the CHRC now to ensure the Government follows the law. The basic legal issues are covered by human rights law. It is in the CHRC’s bag.

Will the CHRC show initiative? Will it step forward, initiate its own complaint against the Government based on the court rulings, and ensure equality for blind people in Canada?