Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Comments on the Ontario accessibility spec, Fall 2008 edition

Well, it’s back: The Accessibility Directorate of Ontario’s standard for information and communications has been semireleased for semipublic “review.” This standard is, of course, one of those standards being created under the ægis of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).

I say semireleased because it isn’t on the Directorate’s Web site. A member of the committee, Sharlyn Ayotte, published it on her blog, with a call for comments. This is hardly transparent government in action. This committee has barely been able to get its act together enough to post committee minutes from 2008 (only one set of such minutes is up), so it isn’t surprising that a version of a public standard meant for public comment would be hidden from public view.

Is that mere incompetence? No, it’s actually worse, because once this standard gets enacted, if you live or do business in Ontario it will apply to you, if your organization is large enough or is otherwise covered. You may be legally required to do what it says. Do you know what’s in it? Well, thanks to Ayotte and me, you do. But no thanks to the provincial government.

What’s wrong with it this time?

This thing is still a mess. It’s just a different kind of mess than it was last time. The fundamental problem remains a lack of expertise on the committee roster. Practically nobody is an expert in “accessible communications,” and several who do have topic knowledge have conflicts of interest. Sharlyn Ayotte’s company stands to benefit from accessibility legislation. The perennially bumbling CNIB leaves no stone unturned in its quest to dominate every aspect of blindness in the country; CNIB relentlessly promotes itself as experts on everything from signage to Web sites, despite knowing nothing whatsoever about either. (These are the same people who commission research on large print, determine that no conclusions are possible, then publish a list of conclusions.)

Other issues?

If my application to join the committee had been approved, maybe the spec would still be the mess it is today, but the committee would have heard about it up front and would have had to make a conscious decision, recorded in public minutes and other documents, to ignore my advice and screw it up anyway.

Topics of concern

No bfoqs

In disability law there is an established concept known as bona fide occupational qualifications or bfoqs. (For some reason, it is usually written in lower case.) There are some disabilities that categorically rule you out for certain jobs. The classic example? You can’t drive a bus if you’re blind. For bus driving, vision is a bfoq.

The spec makes no provision whatsoever for bfoqs. As written, every job, task, and morsel of “information and communications” has to be accessible to everybody, even if the purpose or function of that information requires a bfoq. By my reading, it would actually be impossible to present inaccessible Web content to a Web developer with a disability and tell that developer to fix it. Uncaptioned video would have to be given to certain disabled captioners with captioning already in place, even if that’s what the disabled captioner’s job is.

The absence of bfoqs is circular and nonsensical and is, additionally, a magnet for lawsuits.

Printed documents

The spec contradicts the Copyright Act

In numerous places, the spec requires you to do things that the Copyright Act (a federal law) restricts.

This comes up in various places in the spec, mostly in the context of training or education. That’s bad enough and it is just not going to work. But libraries that provide “reference text-based materials” must also provide them “in accessible electronic format.” Essentially, libraries have to produce their own alternate formats for every reference book they buy, even if they don’t have the rights to do so.

Let me make this even clearer: The library cannot buy a new dictionary or encyclopedia without also buying some kind of electronic format, which, in this muddled specification, may or may not mean DAISY (see below).

Libraries get another kick in the groin: “Materials in situ shall be made available in accessible formats upon request.” It doesn’t say electronic formats, but if I walk into the Toronto Reference Library and “request” that its entire collection be turned into Braille, they have to do it. There is no limitation whatsoever on the “request.”

In particular, this means that a library has to caption and describe all its videos, which only the copyright holder has the right to do. (Captioning and description are derivative works.)

Almost no document formats are deemed accessible

The specification is a confused mess on this topic, but from what I am able to gather, the only electronic file you can use to make a printed document accessible is “E-text,” that is, plain text files. You cannot use anything else – not valid HTML, not tagged PDF, and certainly not Microsoft Word or RTF. There are minor exceptions, but they are muddled and are probably accidents of slipshod writing.

Let’s go through the whole list.

You cannot publish only in print anymore

Something else the spec makes plain as day: All printed publications must be available in accessible form. With what exceptions, you ask? For organizations covered by the specification, none. And there are broad-ranging requirements for publishers that essentially require “E-text” for all printed books in certain categories (“Publishers and other resource providers of text-based educational/training materials shall provide accessible electronic versions for use in alternative accessible formats at the point of order of the text-based version”).

When prepared information and communication is provided in a print format, the organization must provide:

You must provide all five of those alternate formats.

What would an example of an inaccessible “audio format” be? Why isn’t this defined? Note that this permits a live reading in person.

The fix for this section?

You can double-bill for alternate formats

The cost to the consumer with a disability for alternate accessible formats as required by any sections of this proposed standard shall be no more than the cost of the formats charged to other consumers.

If I sell a printed document for $5, the intent of the specification is to prevent me from charging a blind person $6 (or $5.01, or $999). As written, though, I am free to charge the blind person double: I can force them to buy the inaccessible version (at a price of $X) in order to buy the accessible one (also at a price of $X).

There is a conflict here with the Copyright Act, which enables a person with a print disability or a nonprofit organization working on his or her behalf to create an alternate format without prior permission. There is no requirement under the Copyright Act to have actually bought or even to have legally acquired or possess the inaccessible version. Some alternate-format producers insist you buy the printed book before they’ll produce an alternate format. There is no basis in law for that, but there’s no basis for its opposite, either.

Today, though, those producers might charge you the true cost plus markup for the alternate format. The AODA spec would make that illegal: Even the provider of an alternate format could never charge more than the price of the inaccessible version. This is a great way to put out of business everyone but the CNIB, with its vast millions, ongoing donations, and charitable status. Since CNIB is on the committee, I assume this was an unstated but intended outcome.

Reading and writing

If you’re slow at reading, this standard makes your life worse

Where organizations provide individual accommodation as required by Ontario’s Human Rights Code, the organization shall[... g]ive the individual the same time to review, respond or use the information and communication for the intended purpose as given to others [and p]rovide the same availability in terms of time and place as is available to others.

This is the opposite of accessibility. If you have trouble with reading (or just with manipulating reading material), you will probably need more time, not exactly the same amount of time. The spec acts as though people with dyslexia (for example) were being given far too much time to read something, a situation the committee wants to nip in the bud right away.

(This whole thing comes up more than once in the spec.)

Scientists: Prepare to write stupid

Organizations shall develop a policy and establish a practice and procedure on making information and communications available in plain language

Let’s say my organization is MARS, the medical-research cluster in Toronto. My “information and communications” may well include boilerplate Web content, newsletters, and the like, and maybe plain language is appropriate there. But all my scientific and technical reports have to be written for scientists and technicians. Sometimes there is no plain-language version of a document, nor is one possible. This is not the same as writing a script for a popular TV show about a scientific topic, where you really do have to use plain language; I’m talking about peer-reviewed research by scientists for scientists.

In any event, the committee has not advanced a rationale, backed up by research, for any requirement to use plain language. Even if it were able to come up with such research, there would still be too high a risk that something like literature would be banned because its “language” isn’t “plain” enough. (Impossible? Not if the spec remains as badly written as it is now.) Committee minutes from July 2008 admit that plain language as a concept hasn’t been worked out yet.

You get a break with handwritten documents

If you require a handwritten form, you have to provide four different alternatives at once. One of them is simply insane – “transcription of speech or speech recognition.” (Really? How will my printed application form transcribe your speech?) But you only have to provide these alternatives on request.

From what I can tell, this is one of the few provisions of the spec that kicks in on request. Obviously that was a mistake, since nearly everything else is mandatory in all cases without exception. (I predict this will be the only thing they correct in the next version; they’ll ignore everything else I’ve documented here and will do nothing but make this provision mandatory.)

Disabled people can send you stuff you can’t read

Organizations shall establish processes for receiving and responding to user requests, feedback, and complaints regarding accessible information and communications.... The feedback and complaints processes must permit persons to provide their information and communications in their preferred format.

So a blind person is legally entitled to send in a Braille printout that sighted people cannot read? A big-D Deaf person has a similar legal entitlement to submit a sign-language video that hearing people also cannot understand?

What if my preferred format is an audiotape when nobody in the organization has a tape player anymore?

What if it’s DAISY when nobody there has ever heard of DAISY or has anything resembling the technical ability to play it?


Captioning by itself will be illegal

All your videos that provide “prepared information and communication” have to provide the entire list of the following without exception:

In case that isn’t clear, all relevant informational video in Ontario forever would have to provide four simultaneous alternate formats – captioning and a transcript and a sign-language interpretation, plus audio description.

What about video with no soundtrack, like in elevators or on the advertising screens in subway stations or at off-track-betting locations? There’s nothing to caption or transcribe. Where does the audio description go?

Why do we need a transcript if we also have captioning? Where is this transcript supposed to go?

How does one “transcribe” the “visual... information” in a video? This seems to be a reiteration – another one – of the failed fantasy scenario of deaf-blind people’s using a text transcript to understand a video. (I’ve covered this at length.) How are they going to do that while standing at a kiosk or on a subway platform? Where is the research showing that this is the preferred method of accessibility for that group or any group? (There isn’t any.) Where are the researched and tested techniques for writing such transcripts? (They don’t exist.)

Why are we providing sign-language interpretation when only 13,500 people in Ontario use any sign language? Where is the evidence that these people cannot understand captioning? If that is true, why is there so much captioning on TV, in home video, and at the movies?

Where are the video images of these sign-language interpreters or performers supposed to go?

Has the committee thought this through for even five minutes?

You have to transcribe everything

Or actually, every “spoken or audio recording” that provides “prepared information” has to be accompanied by “[a] structured text transcription or caption of the speech and audio.” This is the only section of the spec where “structured text” is permissible. What is it? “Text that contains markup to denote structural elements such as paragraphs, headers, subheaders, sections, pages and highlighted elements.” That would seem to comprise any kind of HTML (even mangled, invalid HTML – the only kind that committee members’ organizations are capable of producing). It also includes tagged PDF, whether the committee realizes it or not. (Tagged PDF may be the only internationally-recognized format that comprises everything on that list.) Some word-processing documents might qualify. This whole section is a mess.

Pixelboards and videoconferencing become illegal

Well, in practice they do. “Live text message[s]” must come with a spoken version. So much for the LED news crawler in your stockbroker’s office: Something or someone is going to have to read that out loud all day.

All “gestures and drawing” in videoconferences must have a “spoken description” and also real-time captioning.

Web sites

All Web sites must meet WCAG 2

Yes. It’s that simple. You don’t even have the option of meeting WCAG 1 (still in effect and never cancelled), let alone WCAG 1 plus the WCAG Samurai Errata.

Web applications have to use WAI-ARIA. While this is not bad, it makes Google Maps illegal right away.

Software and hardware

Photoshop will be illegal

The spec states the following plain as day: “User interfaces of existing IT-based systems shall be accessible.” Some things just aren’t accessible. For example, vision is a bfoq for the use of Photoshop (full arm motion isn’t), but as there is no provision for bfoqs, the use of Photoshop in an “existing IT-based system” would be prohibited because it is inaccessible. That would be true even if your organization employed no disabled people and never had disabled guests come to visit.

By the way, if you provide any kind of software application, it has to be accessible. It’s not clear whether this relates to providing software to developers or to the public: “When prepared information and communication is provided through a software application, the organization must provide an accessible software application.” Apart from being repetitive, what does that mean?

You’ll have to rewrite all your applications

If you have some kind of computer application you are planning to roll out, you will have up to three years to make it accessible – except that you have to make the user interface accessible immediately upon launch. This latter requirement vitiates the former.

Your phone tree will be illegal

The committee seems to mix up relay services and interactive-voice-response systems. Nonetheless, if you have a system that callers talk to, you have to provide seven simultaneous alternatives (copy-errors in original):

In case you don’t understand that, your phone lines also have to work via some kind of Web interface. Your phone system has to somehow know how to read. Your automated system, put in place to reduce your staffing costs, always has to have staff available.

The business about interpreters or interveners is pointless, since, on an interactive system, nobody knows you’re a dog, let alone an interpreter or intervener. How is it even theoretically possible for this kind of system to prevent you from using it with that kind of help?

Whenever there’s typing, there must also be speech recognition

In any system, apparently including a Web site, that “expect[s] a set of choices to be made through typing,” you have to accept nine simultaneous alternatives, one of which is “the ability to respond using speech or voice recognition.”

What they seem to want to say is: If you have a system where people have to type, then they must also be able to talk to it and have it understand everything perfectly. This is flatly impossible, of course, and I emphasize again that it applies to your Web site too.

Forget mechanical controls

...because you have to provide:

That’s all four at once. Do you think your photo booth or transit vending machine could comply with that? At least you don’t have to produce a full auditory user interface.

Think things are better because you’re using membrane switches without “mechanical” features? Nope: You have to provide a second keypad with “enlarged controls with increased spacing,” “voice input” (there it is again!), a full auditory interface, and – incredibly – “mechanical keypad input alternative.” But if you provide a mechanical interface, don’t you have to also provide four alternatives for that? (One of them is the same in both cases – “enlarged buttons or controls with increased spacing.” That in itself is so impracticable as to be impossible, i.e., it constitutes undue hardship.)

In person

You can’t just talk to people

...because, among other things, you have to provide real-time captioning of everything that is said. “Hi, may I take your order?” will never be the same. Oh, and if your nail salon or grocery store is large enough, it has to have an assistive listening device, i.e., special amplification for wireless hearing aids.

You have to pay for interpreters

For “prearranged appointments that have significant personal impact for an individual” (like doctors’ appointments, I guess), you have to “provide a personal communication assistant, intervener, note-taker, and/or ASL/LSQ interpretation services.” That means you might have to provide all four of those services every time.

The building code eviscerated any need for accessible emergency alarms

Organizations shall provide to persons with disabilities upon request their emergency and public safety information in accordance with Section 5 and Schedule 1 requirements. Information about emergency and public safety shall at a minimum include... evacuation procedures and information about facility alarms

The Ontario Building Code was updated in 2006 and 2007 and did not require, for example, visible as well as audible warning systems. Essentially, through the AODA spec, one arm of government seeks to require what another arm of government refused to require.

There’s another interpretation. “[I]nformation about facility alarms” could simply be as follows: “The alarms are audio-only and we have no way of making them accessible to you or any other deaf person.” There. That was your information.

If the intent is to force buildings across the province to retrofit their alarm systems so that deaf people and blind people can understand them, this needs to be openly addressed. Expect a lawsuit just on this topic.

Smaller errors

And that’s all I could manage

I still have several pages of the original specification marked up, but, 4,800 words later, I don’t feel like putting in any more effort. After all, the committee already showed it does not want my help.

Posted: 2008.09.12

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