By KRISTY KIRKUP
Globe and Mail, Mar. 3, 2021
OTTAWA – An advocacy group for blind Canadians is accusing the federal government of negligence after the organization applied for a funding program to support people living with disabilities through an online process it says was not accessible to those with visual impairments.
The Alliance for Equality for Blind Canadians (AEBC), a national charitable organization that advocates for the inclusion of individuals who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, tried to apply for funding to help build capacity for their organization, Ottawa-based lawyer Anne Levesque said.
But there was a huge problem: The application process was only online, the form was not accessible and there was no option to fill it out in another way, she said.
“It’s really beyond belief,” Ms. Levesque said. “How could they not have people with disabilities in mind when they designed this process?” The organization wants the government to take action to address what it calls systemic discrimination by Employment and Social Development Canada.
A representative for the Alliance for Equality for Blind Canadians said he holds the minister responsible for issues with an online funding process. Under the Charter and human rights law, Canada has an obligation to provide websites that are accessible to users who are blind or partially sighted, she said.
In the short term, Ms. Levesque said her clients should receive the $141,500 in funding they applied for. But she said there should be a thorough review of all government websites to ensure that they are fully accessible.
AEBC also filed a human-rights complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission on June 27, 2019.
Ms. Levesque said the complaint was dismissed on July 21, 2020, over a technicality but the organization is challenging that decision at the Federal Court. A spokesperson for the commission said Tuesday that the law prevents it from commenting on complaints.
Dean Steacy, a representative for AEBC, said he holds Carla Qualtrough, the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, responsible.
“Right now, the department, the minister and the government are negligent,” he said.
In a letter sent in November, 2020, Mr. Steacy said he trusted that as the minister and a visually impaired person herself, Ms. Qualtrough would take the organization’s concerns seriously and ensure they were afforded the same opportunity to participate fully in Canadian society.
Ms. Qualtrough’s office did not comment on the matter when asked by The Globe and Mail and referred questions to ESDC.
In a statement, ESDC spokesperson Marie-Eve Sigouin-Campeau said the government is committed to ensuring the full participation and inclusion of persons with disabilities. The department works closely with organizations that request information or need accessibility supports to apply for funding, she said.
“ESDC does rigorous testing on its forms and websites to ensure accessibility, and in cases where organizations need assistance, ESDC communicates in its applicant guides or in response to questions that organizations can request assistance with accessibility from an ESDC employee,” she said.
“In the case of this organization, when they requested assistance, the department offered support and provided applications in multiple formats.”
The process was competitive and not all organizations that submitted a proposal were funded owing to lack of available funding, she added.
In response, Ms. Levesque said ESDC staff were available to answer questions but when AEBC members were contacted about their inability to complete the form, “no measures were taken to address the problems regarding accessibility.”
The alliance was offered more time to complete the application, she added, noting the solution was not helpful.
“In other words, they were denied funding because they could not properly complete the online form.”