A Federal Court judge has ordered the government to make its websites accessible to visually impaired users after a blind Toronto woman said she was unable to apply for a job online.
Donna Jodhan, a special-needs business consultant with an MBA, launched a constitutional challenge aiming to grant visually impaired people equal access to the services and information on several federal government websites.
Government lawyers argued there was no discrimination because those same services are provided in other formats, such as on the phone, in person or by mail.
On Monday the court found that the federal government “has not implemented existing accessibility standards and that some of the standards are obsolete.”
As a result, the current system “discriminates against the applicant and other visually impaired persons,” Justice Michael Kelen wrote in the decision.
He gave Ottawa 15 months to update its websites in compliance with charter rights.
Ms. Jodhan, who has been blind since birth, filed the challenge in 2007 after struggling through several attempts to apply for government jobs through the government’s 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, most can’t decipher PDF files, a format often used to publish documents online.
In 2001 the government adopted a web standard 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 such as the government’s ePass web portal 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 case was argued in September.