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Accessible website design frequently means adding descriptive text to such things as photos, infographics, or images containing important contact information, like a business card.siteimprove.ca

To a visually impaired person, the average real estate listing website can be indecipherable.

Accessibility of most digital services remains a huge stumbling block in Canada, but one of the things a sighted person takes for granted when looking at Realtor.ca or some other online listings portal is how much work the pictures do to itemize the elements of a home that is for sale. A blind or visually impaired person may not be able to tell if there is a large bay window in the dining room; they can’t see that the kitchen has no upper cabinets or that there are unfinished floors in the house.

In a business where most home buyers start their search online, a large and growing population of visually impaired Canadians could be frustrated or shut out.

“There’s a misunderstanding about what disability is: [some people] think it’s a tiny sliver of the population but that’s not the case,” said Sam Proulx, who is blind and an accessibility advocate at Toronto-based consulting firm Fable Tech Labs Inc. The company has helped Walmart, Telus, Slack and Shopify, among others, to build accessible online systems.

A 2017 study from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind estimated 1.5 million Canadians self-identify as having sight loss. Millions more said they had conditions that could cause visual impairment in the future. Ontario has the largest cohort of visually impaired Canadians with more than 680,000, which is approximately the population of Hamilton (the province’s third-largest urban area). “One in five people lives with a disability, that’s only going to increase, especially in Canada with an aging population,” Mr. Proulx said.

For the visually impaired, text is king: Many blind people such as Mr. Proulx use screen-reader software that essentially creates an audio version of a website so they can access the internet. It can be difficult for a sighted person unfamiliar with accessibility software to assess the compliance of websites, but there are browser plug-ins that will check a site and provide tips for improving usefulness for the disabled.

Accessible website design frequently means adding descriptive text to such things as photos, infographics or images containing important contact information, including a business card.

A cursory check using one accessibility software tool at siteimprove.ca found serious deficiencies on some real estate sites. A typical listing found on Royallepage.ca – online home of Canada’s largest real estate holding company – drew 19 warnings that photos were missing appropriate descriptive text. Listings on the site for Canada’s largest realtor grouping, the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board, typically had more than 50 images missing descriptive text. And Canada’s most-visited real estate site, Realtor.ca, had some listings with 70 or more images missing descriptive text or with text that was meaningless.

Mr. Proulx warns that some checkers can throw up false-negatives and that hiring a consultant to do a full site audit is preferable.

According to a statement from TRREB chief executive officer John DiMichele, its most recent accessibility survey found its listings service was just a little more than 70-per-cent compliant with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) that established standards designed to address some of the structural barriers disabled people face in accessing goods and services, including digital services and websites.

“We are awaiting the developer’s full report so that we can review the outstanding AODA compliance items and develop a plan to improve its compliance level,” Mr. DiMichele said in a statement. He added that TRREB had hired AccessiBe, an Israeli technology company, “to perform a compliance audit of our public website, as recommended by the Ontario government.”

But critics say many organizations have failed to meet the very generous compliance deadlines (in some cases organizations had 10 years to get to work), many of which elapsed in 2021, set by the Ministry for Seniors and Accessibility.

“The problem generally is the government is doing an absolutely pathetic job of enforcing the AODA,” said David Lepofsky, a blind lawyer and law professor who runs the activist group Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance. “They could be doing spot checks, such as saying ‘Hey, real estate sector’ and give them a head’s up to start cleaning up their act. But the government’s enforcement of the AODA has been incredibly paltry.”

Compliance with the AODA can mean as little as proving you have a policy that will address any accessibility issues in your business, and there are more than 400,000 organizations that are obligated to comply with the AODA in Ontario. In its 2017 AODA enforcement report, the ministry said it conducted 1,746 “compliance activities” (audits and inspections), 16 of which involved an inspector. Ten of those were closed without an enforcement order. In the other six, orders were issued, with three incurring an administrative monetary penalty.

The ministry said it has not yet produced annual reports for 2020 or 2021 because of delays related to COVID-19, but its 2019 report showed a slowdown in resourcing. In that year, 1,130 new audits were launched and only 80 per cent were completed, with the addition of 427 completed from the previous year. A total of 172 cases were escalated to inspector level and, of those, 21 were issued a director’s order, five of which came with a monetary penalty.

In 2017, 56,000 organizations were supposed to submit their own compliance report, but less than half, about 24,000, did so. Of those that sent in a report, 94 per cent said they were in full compliance.

In a statement to The Globe, the ministry didn’t say how many compliance reports were received in 2020 or 2021, but did say, “We have found that approximately 96 per cent of organizations come into compliance when made aware of their obligations without requiring any escalated enforcement action.”

Mr. Lepofsky bemoans the inability of Ontarians to directly sue a non-compliant organization, an option that has been available for decades in the U.S. under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But Mr. Proulx believes a less combative approach could pay better dividends: “We don’t want drive-by ADA lawsuits … if your entire strategy is built on fear, [companies and organizations] are going to do the bare minimum,” he said. Mr. Proulx points out that real estate listings with better descriptive text would be more searchable, and that other customizations – for example, one that might allow a person with mobility issues to narrow down those search results based on whether the home is one-level or has steps – would be welcomed by all real estate shoppers.

Mr. Lepofsky agrees that if AODA compliance is going to be more than just ticking a box, it must reward organizations that make services more useful to both those with disabilities and those without. A popular example is closed-captioning television: developed for the deaf but usable by everyone when sound is not available or desirable. “The steps that help us, help everyone,” Mr. Lepofsky said. “The button for a power door to get into a building? Lots of people who can walk use it.”

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