Thirty years ago, groups for the disabled in Canada fought for accessible sidewalks, washrooms and transportation.
Today their battleground is equal access to technologies such as cellphones, hand-held devices, entertainment systems and even home appliances.
“The new technology can actually be either the great liberator for people with disabilities ... or it can begin to create a whole new set of barriers that we haven't had to deal with before,” said Laurie Beachell, national co-ordinator for the Council of Canadians with Disabilities.
John Rae, 60, of Toronto suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive eye disease that caused him to lose much of his sight when he was in his 20s.
Since Air Canada modernized its in-flight entertainment system, which now uses touch screens, the retired Ontario government employee finds himself with nothing to do but sleep on long flights.
“You used to be able to navigate the entertainment system in an airplane by buttons on the side of your seat ... but with these flat screen entertainment systems, I no longer can. My independence has been taken away from me,” said Mr. Rae, who volunteers with the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians.
On Mr. Rae's computer, the screen technology that reads documents aloud doesn't recognize some formats that are commonly used when transmitting text, so he simply can't access the information.
“I consider it discrimination,” Mr. Rae said.
“Manufacturers of technology, manufacturers of household appliances continue to develop and manufacture equipment and technology that we can't use.”
Groups such as the non-profit Neil Squire Society, hope to change all that. The society, which focuses on using technology to “empower” the disabled, is pressing Canadian regulators to force companies to make products more user-friendly for the disabled.
Last fall, hearings were held with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission where groups representing the disabled argued for better access to things such as cellphones.
“Basically (we) were trying to make the case that cellphone companies don't do a really good job of ensuring that there are products for people with disabilities that meet their needs,” said Harry Lew, the society's manager of research and development.
People with physical mobility problems, who may have spasms or can't use their hands, can't use many services on hand-held devices, he said.
“So you can't access email if you're a person with a mobility impairment right now. You can't surf the web on a handset because there just aren't any solutions.”
“That's the classic case where people with disabilities are lagging behind.”
Jim Johannsson, a spokesman for Telus, said the company is making efforts to help people with disabilities.
He said Telus, which participated in the CRTC hearings last November, has enhanced its directory assistance capabilities by using more voice recognition technology. There is also a service that will convert emails from text into audio for those with impaired vision.
Telus has an application before the CRTC for approval of a video relay service for its deaf customers, so that one or both people on either end of the connection can use sign language.
But these systems require national standards and CRTC approval, Johannsson said, to ensure the same level of service across the country.
“We know that with technology you can allow people with certain disabilities to be incredibly productive and wherever possible we're making those investments,” he said.
The challenge is determining whether governments, companies or individuals should have to pay for such services, Johannsson said.
Ontario is believed to be the only province to have passed legislation that aims to improve access to goods and services for the disabled, including information and technology.
Each year in Canada it is estimated that people with disabilities spend about $25 billion on goods and services.
Bill Adair, executive director of the Ontario branch of the Canadian Paraplegic Association, said while technological innovations are important, removing prejudice against the disabled is still at the heart of the issue.
“If you fix (information technology) and you still leave the whole concept of prejudicial attitudes towards people with disabilities intact, you really haven't done a whole lot.”