Vancouver Olympics Web sites are inaccessible to disabled people

Posted: 2010.02.22

By Joe Clark

Testing shows and
are almost impossible to use for some people with physical disabilities, and hard to use and understand for blind or deaf people.

John Furlong made a promise

In 2004, Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC) CEO John Furlong
promised that the Web sites for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games would be accessible to disabled people. This was important, because a blind man in Australia could not use the Web site of the Sydney 2000 Olympics and later won a human-rights case against the Sydney Olympic organizing committee and IBM.

Six years ago, then, Furlong made a high-minded promise about Web accessibility, one that took into account the failings of previous Olympic Web sites. The Olympic movement should have known that Web accessibility would be under scrutiny.

Furlong now has to take responsibility for the fact his organization’s Web site is not accessible to disabled people. Neither is the Web site independently published by VANOC’s Canadian host broadcaster, whose managers never made a promise to stay accessible.

Is it illegal?

Is it illegal to provide Web sites that are inaccessible to disabled people? It varies from country to country, but the answer is “not yet.”

In Canada, no law requires Web sites to be accessible. But Web sites from companies are covered by human-rights laws, which prohibit discrimination or unequal treatment on the basis of disability. One or two human-rights complaints have been filed about Web accessibility, but none has reached a public settlement, to my knowledge.

So the legal reality is this: No legislature passed a law forcing anyone with a Web presence publish accessible Web sites. But it’s illegal for an organization to discriminate against disabled people. It’s pretty easy to argue that inaccessible Web sites are discriminatory – that’s what happened in the Sydney 2000 case. It’s just that we haven’t had a similarly clear-cut case in Canada yet.

Other countries can have stronger laws. Australia, for example, legally requires a certain degree of Web accessibility, but the only way to enforce that
requirement is to file a human-rights complaint, so the effect is the same as in Canada. In the U.S., case law is not clear on whether or not the Americans
with Disabilities Act, or any general legislation, requires accessible Web sites.

What happens next?

Probably nothing. VANOC and CTV will probably get away clean with having provided inaccessible Web sites, arguably breaking the law while doing so. Perhaps a user with a disability will file a human-rights complaint. (You can do that after the fact. By definition, you always do.)

Based on precedent and experience, there’s no way VANOC or CTV could win such a complaint. They’d lose outright or just settle it (which is the same as
not winning). It wouldn’t cost them much, but it would be embarrassing.

What about the Paralympics?

The Vancouver 2010 Paralympics begin 2010.03.12 and end 2010.03.21. That gives VANOC a few weeks to make its site actually accessible.

I don’t buy the notion that the Paralympic Web site has to be accessible because the Paralympics are the games for disabled athletes. If you believe that, then you must believe the Olympic Web site does not have to be accessible because that event is not for disabled athletes (
except for Brian McKeever).

The entire premise of Web accessibility is that all Web sites can be accessible to most people with disabilities, and some Web sites can be very accessible to nearly all disabled people. This isn’t about making special accessible versions for special disabled people. Disabled people aren’t special; they’re just disabled. With not very many exceptions, the whole Web can be made accessible for them.

Web accessibility is a practice that rejects the idea of segregation. But the Olympics are all about segregation – and I don’t mean separating elite athletes from everyone else. While there are a lot of arguments in favour of keeping the Paralympics separate from the Olympics, the fact remains they are separate. This says nothing about how accessible their respective sites should be. Both Games’ Web sites can, should, and arguably must be accessible.


You can read my detailed findings.
You don’t have to know much about Web sites to understand them. They’re written in plain language and aren’t technical.


I’ll be publishing any
from CTV and VANOC.


After the Olympics are over, I’ll be releasing an archive of downloaded source code, validation reports, screenshots, printouts, and other data from the
two affected sites. It will be useful for research into a possible human-rights complaint, articles and postings on the topic, or general interest.

What’s the real culprit?

First of all, quite obviously nobody really cared enough to make these two Web sites accessible. The fact that some items were well handled (like tables
and alternate text for some images) shows that developers had an awareness of Web accessibility. They just didn’t go all the way.

Why? Because that’s not what we do in Canada. Online, we do things really half-assed. We don’t have an expert class of Web developers the way other countries, like the U.K., Australia, and Sweden, do. Inaccessible, and just plain incorrect, Web-development practices are reinforced at every level. Not-very-good developers hire other not-very-good developers, which charge a fortune to clients who don’t know the difference. (Then those developers go on to win awards for their work.)

The fundamental problem isn’t just a mechanical failure on a few technical issues here and there. It’s a systemic problem in this country: Canadian Web
developers go for bronze. This is one podium they will never own.

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