The federal government is being ordered to make its websites accessible to visually impaired users - and the judge who issued the directive Monday says he'll be watching to make sure Ottawa follows through.
Federal Court Justice Michael Kelen gave the government 15 months to update its websites after a blind Toronto woman said she was unable to apply for a public service job online.
Donna Jodhan, a special-needs business consultant with a MBA, launched a constitutional challenge aiming to grant visually impaired people equal access to the services and information on several federal government websites.
On Monday the court found the government "has not implemented existing accessibility standards and that some of the standards are obsolete."
The court will monitor the government's progress in making the change, Judge Kelen said in the decision.
David Baker, Ms. Jodhan's lawyer, said it's "extremely rare" for the court to follow a case so closely after making a decision.
"Historically, courts have declared when there is a charter violation based on the assumption that the government will bring itself into compliance," he said.
In this case, the court may compel the government to disclose what it has done to make the sites more accessible, likely through internal audits, Mr. Baker added.
What's more, Ms. Jodhan can "force the matter back into court" if Ottawa doesn't co-operate, he said.
The ruling is a "shot in the arm" for the blind and sight-impaired community, said Ms. Jodhan, who added it's a sign that people shouldn't be afraid to stand up for their rights.
"In the case of the mainstream community, I think it will certainly help build awareness as far as why it's so important for blind and sight-impaired Canadians to be able to independently access their own information on government websites," she said.
Government lawyers had argued there was no discrimination because those same services are provided in other formats, such as on the phone, in person or by mail.
"We are continuing to look at ways to make information more accessible to all Canadians," Jay Denney, spokesman for the Treasury Board, said in an e-mail Monday. The Treasury Board is responsible for enforcing accessibility standards.
Jutta Treviranus, director of the University of Toronto's Adaptative Technology Resource Centre and one of the experts involved in the case, said the decision will save taxpayers money in the long run.
"If you think about how the incidence of disability in Canada is increasing as we age, and so it'll become a much more important thing as the years progress, and the earlier we do it, the less it will cost," she said.
With more and more government services moving online, it's easier to make them accessible from the start than to retrofit them all later, she said, adding that government staff already have much of the technical tools and know-how they need to take action.
Ms. Jodhan, who has been blind since birth, filed the challenge in 2007 after struggling through several attempts to apply for government positions through the job bank website.
She also had problems accessing data on the Statistics Canada website, filling out an online census form, and viewing information on the Canada Pension Plan on the Service Canada website.
Despite her extensive technological training - she won four awards from IBM for technical initiatives - Ms. Jodhan found herself relying on sighted individuals to help her navigate the sites, or on government employees to provide accurate information in a timely manner, she said in an affidavit.
Many blind people use screen readers, computer software that translates electronic text into audio. But the readers aren't foolproof - for one thing, some can't decipher interactive web applications such as the government's ePass web portal.
In 2001 the government adopted a web protocol known as the Common Look and Feel Standard, which requires government department websites to be designed and programmed to ensure they can be accessed by visually impaired users.
The Treasury Board conducted a spot audit of 47 of the 146 federal departments in 2007 and found that none complied with the standard. No follow-up information was presented in court.
The federal government's chief information officer, Ken Cochrane, told the court each department was responsible for implementing the standard.
The court ruled that Ottawa must update the standard to make interactive applications accessible.
It also found that visually impaired people are disadvantaged by having to obtain the information available online through other means, such as the phone or mail.
The court also determined Ms. Jodhan's legal fees should be reimbursed because the case was in the public interest.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this Canadian Press story that was online and in Tuesday's Globe and Mail reported that most screen readers (computer software that translates electronic text into audio for the visually impaired) cannot decipher PDF files. That statement was based on arguments made in Federal Court in Donna Jodhan's constitutional challenge against the federal government. However, a spokesman for Adobe Systems, the creator of PDF file technology, says that at present, and in 2007 when Ms. Jodhan initiated her case, most screen readers can read PDF files.
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