Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Comments on the Ontario accessibility spec, March 2011

Without really telling anyone – there is no outreach whatsoever on this file, which seems deliberate – the Ontario government is about to close the book on the information and communication standard required by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. (This new version was open to comments until 2011.03.18. Did you know that?)

It’s better, but it can’t be enacted as written without years of litigation, mostly due to loopholes that enable clueless Windows-using Ontario companies to keep right on producing crapola Web sites and claiming it is not “practical” to make them accessible. Trust me: This is what’s gonna happen if the wording isn’t tightened up.

Fundamental deficiency

As we will see, throughout the specification there is no requirement whatsoever that covered organizations choose accessible formats up front, whether accompanied by inaccessible formats or not.

How to get out of converting any information to accessible form

In ¶9(1)(3), “information” can be deemed “unconvertible” to accessible form if

  1. it is not technically feasible to convert the information or communications; or
  2. the technology to convert the information or communications is not readily available.

Information can always be read out loud or transcribed, can it not? Now, if we’re talking about a really bizarre request like turning every sign alongside Highway 407 into Braille, then maybe it would be technically unfeasible. Is that the typical use case, though? No. In practice, printed matter, Web sites, and audio, film, and video will be the items for which conversion is requested. When, if ever, is it technically unfeasible to convert such things? Never, I contend.

We have a raft of technologies “readily available” to do this job. This sounds like an easy dodge for a company that never wanted to make anything accessible. They could claim that, for example, software to convert inaccessible information isn’t already in their possession, making such conversion “not technically feasible.” Or they’d be faced with going out and ordering the software, which would instantly classify such software as “not readily available” because it wasn’t already in-house.

No incentive to start off with accessible formats

¶12(1) requires organizations to provide accessible formats on request, but never forces them to choose accessible formats up front to avoid the necessity of conversion later.

They can give you a shitty format you can’t actually use

¶12(2) lets an organization give you any format they want even if you don’t want it and you asked for something else. If you want a human-read audio version of a book, they can give you plain-text files (with no structure) or a recording of computer speech output. Or they could hire a shitty reader you cannot even understand, let alone follow.

This clause in itself will result in human-rights complaints. People with disabilities have the right to be served with dignity equal to that of nondisabled people. If a sighted person gets a nicely typeset and bound full-colour book but a blind person gets an error-strewn OCRed file E-mailed to them even after requesting something else, unequal treatment on the basis of disability has occurred. And that’s illegal.

They don’t have to tell you how to escape from a burning building until it’s on fire

¶13(1) talks about emergency procedures.

[I]f an obligated organization prepares emergency procedures, plans or public safety information and makes the information available to the public, the obligated organization shall provide the information in an accessible format or with appropriate communication supports, as soon as practicable, upon request.

So they don’t have to tell you where the emergency exits are, what the fire-safety features of your building are, who your safety warden is, or even where the fire exit is until you ask for it. This is ass-backwards and potentially lethal. Organizations have an obligation to provide accessible emergency information up front, at least to employees and frequent visitors.

Web accessibility

This is where the AODA will shock the pants off real-world organizations: They won’t be able to throw shit against the wall and call it HTML anymore.

Except when they can, because of apparently intentional loopholes.

Basic requirements

WCAG 2 is required of everyone, starting in 2012 for the Ontario government and the Legislature and by 2020 for all organizations covered. Eventually everyone has to hit Level AA, though the wording in that regard is not great.

“Not practicable”

And here we come to the loopholes. Everything has to comply with WCAG 2 “[e]xcept where meeting the requirement is not practicable.” What does that mean? I’ll tell you what it means. It means Ontario organizations, with their Windows IT departments and atrocious Web developers who have never heard of standards compliance even after ten full years of same, will look at WCAG’s requirements and decide they don’t know how to implement them. It’s true: They won’t know. They’ll also be too stupid to figure out how to learn to implement them. But they won’t ever bother; they’ll just use the dodge that upgrading their skills is “not practicable.” That would require effort, wouldn’t it? Any expenditure of effort would “not” be “practicable.”

In other words, this clause (at ¶14[5]) is a get-out-of-human-rights-tribunal-free card for the incompetent developers who are the norm in Ontario. If they’ve even heard of WCAG, which they haven’t, they won’t actually understand it, because WCAG 2 is written for standards-compliant developers, of whom there are maybe three or four in the province. After these indentured IT guys figure out how to wrangle their IE6 browsers to Google WCAG 2, they’ll take one look at it, declare that they don’t understand it (they won’t be lying), and use their own ignorance as a rationale for deeming conversion of their sites “not practicable.”

This specification helpfully feeds developers some excuses they can proffer as to why conversion is “not practicable.” These too are bogus, but the worst part is they are non-exhaustive. Developers really can claim their own ignorance as a reason.

Nothing requires the use of accessible formats

Here again the specification does nothing to require covered organizations to choose accessible formats up front. In particular, the section on educational and training resources (¶15) recapitulates the 20th century in that the assumption is that inaccessible materials will be bought first and maybe made accessible later if and only if somebody asks for that.

Now, this clause is tricky because it seems to require, through “procuring through purchase or obtaining by other means[,] an accessible or conversion-ready electronic format.” That sounds like a win (it isn’t, as we’ll see shortly), and clearly ¶12 needs to say the same thing to avoid a double standard. But even ¶15 requires “notification of need.” In other words, in neither ¶12 nor ¶15 is there an affirmative obligation, irrespective of explicit request, to procure accessible versions first or alongside inaccessible versions. (The same problem recurs in ¶17 regarding producers of educational or training material.)


Libraries faced serious jeopardy in a previous version of the standard, whereby a user could walk in and demand the entire contents of a library be made accessible. Now, though, if you read ¶18(1) carefully, libraries must provide an accessible version “where available,” i.e., they don’t have to go out and create it. But that only applies to libraries “of educational and training institutions.”

Public libraries have an ambiguous requirement – to “provide access to or arrange for the provision of access to accessible materials where they exist.” Exist where? Already inside the library system? Or is this a recapitulation of the previous requirement that a library must make anything in its collection accessible on request?

Here too there is no requirement for libraries of any kind to preferentially acquire accessible versions.


Posted: 2011.03.17 11:59

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