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Call for a national accessibility action plan to meet obligations to people with disabilities

Author: Suzanne Cohen Share

Posted on Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011 at 9:15 am

For years I have followed the work of advocacy groups in order to understand the needs of people with disabilities. One issue stands out among the research: the removal and prevention of barriers is vital to provide equal access to daily living. Two recognizable advocacy groups are asking the federal government to get on with a plan of action.

It was only a matter of time before Canadian advocates on behalf of people with disabilities would ask for a federal program or plan to meet Canada’s obligations to the United Nations. Canada signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which came into force on May 3, 2008. We joined 147 other countries that that have signed the convention, 95 of which have ratified it. On a global scale, each country that signed or ratified the convention is moving forward to achieve accessibility for people with disabilities. The convention clarifies how all categories of rights apply to persons with disabilities.

You may ask why there is not already a federal initiative that enforces a uniform method to achieve accessibility throughout Canada. Provinces are approaching the subject separately and a federal framework or plan seems to be common sense. To date, there is no indication that a federal program is forthcoming. Nonetheless, various disability advocacy groups are encouraging the federal government to take a leadership position. This month, the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD) and Canadian Association for Community Living (CACL) released a Working Paper on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to start a dialogue on this topic and propose actions for implementation.

The working paper calls for “national mechanisms for implementation, monitoring and reporting” to achieve the obligations of the convention. These advocacy groups are asking for the federal government to enact Article 4 of the convention. Article 4 states people with disabilities or their representatives will be consulted and involved in implementing the convention. A core call for action includes “a national framework for implementation”:

Design a National Framework for Implementation, or a National Action Plan, to ensure Canada meets its obligations in Article 33(2) and to provide the vision and overarching framework for successful implementation of the CRPD. A detailed implementation action plan would identify necessary mechanisms for collaboration, benchmarks for monitoring and reporting, and strategies for priority areas for action the disability community has identified, including:

  • Access to disability supports
  • Poverty alleviation
  • Labour force participation
  • Accessibility and inclusion
  • Canada’s international leadership

The authors have crafted an intelligent and reasonable plan to achieve the obligations in the convention—including actions that the federal government has already promised. They don’t demand the government fix the world this minute, but instead call for an advisory panel including people with disabilities as participants. It is important to note that these two advocacy groups stayed within the legal confines of the convention and the presently unsigned or ratified Optional Protocol. The Optional Protocol allows for a UN committee to be assembled that will review the progress of participating nations.

All Canadians will benefit from a national program of action that is transparent, accountable and measurable. Achieving accessibility for people with disabilities requires national leadership that does not leave individual communities with the task of identifying the work to be done.

There are many reasons for the general public to support this call to action. Organizations will benefit from a national plan that prescribes minimum requirements, timelines and guidelines. A comprehensive national plan of action will help Canadians to understand their commitments and identify priorities. Organizations can use a national plan as a baseline to educate staff, volunteers and third parties on expectations. With access to a broad bank of diverse information, national organizations will be able to rapidly understand their obligations and changes that require a financial remedy.

When I use the words minimum standards, I do not mean the federal government needs to have weak legislation that can be bettered by provinces, municipalities, regions or organizations. A strong federal framework will mean that everyone can relax about enacting additional legislation.

Disability advocacy groups understand that federal leadership means everyone in Canada can be on the same path. This call for action is a win-win situation for everyone. Perhaps we can all find out what is the best way to convince the federal government to act on this working paper or at least tell us if there is a plan in the works.

Suzanne Cohen Share, M.A.
Access (SCS) Consulting Services o/b 0623921 Ontario Ltd.

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Accessible electronic information and communications: small steps with a big outcome

Accessible electronic information and Author: Suzanne Cohen Share

Posted on Wednesday, November 24th, 2010 at 9:30 am

There are some simple ways that organizations and content-creators can alter our daily habits so that people with a variety of disabilities who depend on a screen reader can understand information. What is a screen reader? A screen reader reads aloud electronic communications.

Unfortunately, screen readers cannot decide for the end-user what is relevant or irrelevant information. Based on the type of document and format, the screen reader may also provide information in a way that makes no sense to the end-user. Some fixes are relatively easy, others take a little education and yes, others take more education.

I am not focusing on making your website fully accessible or how to make all existing electronic information accessible. I want to discuss the present and the future with the intent to stop organizations from creating inaccessible or aggravating information and communications. This article is just a first step to give you the heads up on some simple changes you can establish now. Other steps can help you prioritize the changes that may be necessary in your organization.

Consider these screen reader tips:

1.Email: When sending emails, use the BCC (blind carbon copy) section of your address to send bulk emails. Use just one name in the main address section. Otherwise, recipients who use a screen reader have to listen to all the names and addresses of everyone who is receiving your email. Not only is this aggravating and time consuming, but by providing only one name in the heading you will be keeping your contacts private.
2.Pictures: The cliché that pictures replace a thousand words is not useful for a person who is blind or has low vision or vision loss. Use open captioning features and describe what you are trying to say in the picture. Hopefully it will not take a thousand words.
3.Plain language: If you are talking to a wide audience it is always to your benefit to use plain language rather than specialized or technical language or jargon.
4.Fonts: Use simple fonts like Arial and Verdana at a minimum of 12 points. Artistic fonts and italics can be difficult to read for people with a variety of disabilities.
5.Colour contrast: Electronic documents and websites should offer strong colour contrast and avoid using watermarks in the background. Always avoid glare. These steps can help any audience, which can otherwise be aggravated by unclear text on a colourful background.
6.Creating PDF documents: Adobe has provided accessibility features since Version 7, and improved them with Version 9. Spread the word that programmers should pay attention to the accessibility features, learn them and use them regularly.
7.All electronic documents: Make sure your documents are accessible. If you are not sure, contact the vendor.
8.Websites: An international organization called the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) provides protocols and guidelines to ensure that web-based information is accessible to everyone. Make sure your programmers know how to build and maintain an accessible website. Make sure all of the people involved are aware of their obligations to offer accessible information.
9.A best practice approach is to prioritize existing web content to become accessible based on:
Usability factors, for example, questionnaires, feedback or applications
Information that is frequently visited, legal or vital
10.Encryption codes: Such codes are not accessible to people who are blind or have low vision or vision loss. Often the codes are so complicated that sighted users also have problems with accessibility. Offer an accessible non-biometric alternative method to verify you are dealing with an adult.
11.Accessible website portal: Use the upper left hand corner of your website to direct a screen reader to read aloud that there is an accessible section of your website. By placing the prompt in the upper left hand corner the screen reader will speak these words first to the end-user. Make this a temporary solution while you are preparing to provide a fully accessible website.
12.Free screen readers: There are free screen readers available. You can download one and learn how to use it. When providing accessible information, use the screen reader to identify problem areas.
13.Free accessible website assessments: You can find out if your website is accessible by asking a company that specializes in creating accessible websites for an evaluation. You can also contact companies that sell software that maintains a website’s accessibility. These companies often help organizations test some sample pages of their website free of charge.
If you want to understand the problems that an inaccessible website can cause, visit WebAim for information.

Alright, so steps numbers one to five should be easy, and the rest should take some homework. On a go-forward basis, there is no reason for new information to be communicated without using accessibility features. However, old information is still a problem, and you can evaluate its continuing value.

Your organization will likely realize these changes will not just help people with disabilities. For example, accessibility also aids seniors, and clear communication helps everyone receive your message. If you start providing accessible electronic information as soon as possible, in the future you will likely save time and money. You might minimize converting information to alternative formats. You may also realize benefits and profits when your organization provides accessible electronic information to a wider audience.

Suzanne Cohen Share, M.A.
Access (SCS) Consulting Services o/b 0623921 Ontario Ltd.

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AODA accessibility standards for customer service – Training decisions

Author: Suzanne Cohen Share

Posted on Wednesday, January 26th, 2011 at 9:15 am

Organizations in Ontario with one or more employees must train staff, volunteers and third parties who deal with the public on your behalf on how to provide customer service to people with disabilities. Your organization must also train staff or participants that develop your policies, practices and procedures about the provision of goods and services to the public or other third parties. As a service provider you are obligated to have staff, volunteers and third parties trained by January 1, 2012.

The following specific requirements are outlined in Ontario’s Accessibility Standards for Customer Service.

1.Training must include:
A review of the purposes of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act and the requirements of the customer service standard
How to interact and communicate with people with various types of disabilities
How to interact with people with disabilities who use assistive devices, service animals or support persons; this includes how to use equipment or assistive devices you offer on your premises
What to do if a person with a disability is having a problem accessing your goods or services
Your customer service policies, practices and procedures about providing goods or services to people with disabilities
2.Training must be provided as soon as “practicable” after a person is assigned responsibilities.
3.Training must be ongoing, teaching changes to your policies, practices and procedures about providing goods and services to people with disabilities. Staff should know what your organization is specifically doing to meet the requirements of the standard.
4.If you are obliged to maintain documentation (i.e., if you have 20 or more employees), your organization will describe its training policy, summarize the contents of the training and provide details on when training is provided.
Documentation includes dates of when training occurred and the number of people in attendance. A best practice is to list the names of the attendees rather than stating just a number.
Does everyone need the same training experience?

The simple answer is no. You will determine the contents of the training based on your own organization’s policies, practices and procedures, and include the general requirements of the standard. You may decide to provide more intensive training depending on how much a person interacts with people with disabilities or their policy-making impact on people with disabilities. There are numerous methods for you to decide how to deliver training. An important factor of training is that you monitor it to ensure a person has really received the necessary training.

A best practice approach is to provide management with an intensive training program that includes a great level of detail about their obligations under the Act. Other staff, volunteers and third parties may receive minimal information about the Act itself, but undergo a thorough training program meeting all the requirements of the customer service standard. Your training content may vary depending on the specific training needs of a group.

Your options are live training sessions with a consultant; live training sessions with staff who are trained as instructors; workbooks; videos; handouts; and webinars. You may decide you want a combination of webinars, videos and handouts, plus some experiential training. You will decide the most expedient and cost-effective method to deliver training. You need a training protocol for new hires, volunteers or third parties. Decide dates for ongoing training when there are changes to your policies, practices and procedures on providing goods or services to people with disabilities.

Accessibility consultants are often used to run general training classes or to teach staff chosen lead future accessibility training sessions. Some organizations hire a consultant recognizing that a formal orientation that meets compliance only has to be completed in the first year and periodically thereafter. Having staff in-house that are trained in accessible customer service can make sense in a large organization; otherwise a consultant can save your organization time and energy.

Yes, there are lots of decisions to make, but after this year, your organization will have (hopefully!) met its compliance obligations and learned what you might do differently in the future.

On a last note, it is a myth that there is an accredited certificate for training. If you choose to have a certificate, it can come in the name of your compliance consultant’s organization or your own. When choosing a consultant, except for the cost of printing, do not pay more for a program that advertises certification. The keyword is to meet compliance. Certificates are nice as an incentive, but the law does not require one and there is no specific certificate to acquire. In the end, the most important effect of training is that attendees become excellent customer service representatives to people with disabilities (and others, too).

Suzanne Cohen Share, M.A., CEO
Access (SCS) Consulting Services o/b 623921 Ont. Ltd.

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