2004 Conference Proceedings

Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2004 Table of Contents 


THE CASE FOR PERVASIVE ACCESSIBILITY

Presenter(s)
Alexandra Katseva
The Intoinfo Consulting Group
56 Sparks Street, Siote 500
Ottawa, Ontario K1P 5A9 Canada
Phone: 613-233-0807; ext: 248
Email: alexandrak@intoinfo.com

INTRODUCTION

Canadians enjoy the unprecedented benefits of living in a society where most citizens have an equal, seamless and unrestricted opportunity to access all the information they desire using any mode of technology, from books to Personal Digital Assistants (PDA's), from computers to enterprise networks. Access to new kinds and greater amounts of information is empowering. For example, in having more knowledge about their governments at all levels, people gain the tools to become active participants in society. Information Technology (IT) is revolutionizing relationships. It is changing the way individuals relate to information, to one another, and to their government.

Unfortunately, all sectors of society do not share equally the full benefits of this reality. People interact with their IT environment in a multitude of ways based on their preferences. Persons with disabilities are often the victims of ill-conceived technology that does not account for these differences and as a result, these individuals are often left with lower levels of access. The ideal of full and equal access for all is a target for which to aim in order to overcome obstacles to full access that persons with disabilities face every day.

Assistive Technology or Adaptive Technology (AT) represents attempts to eliminate these inequities. AT is a piece of equipment, a software product, or a system that is used to increase, maintain, or assist the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. In short, it can be any device or technique that assists people in removing or reducing barriers and enhancing their daily activities.

However, as technology evolves, AT often becomes outdated, leaving developers scrambling to produce new forms of AT to "catch-up" to IT. In the meantime, individuals relying on AT are left with obsolete equipment and consequently, reduced access to information and services. Although AT does catch up, inevitably, the accessibility cycle repeats itself as technology is too often developed with little or no thought to accessibility.

Typically, technology is designed for functionality from the outset and made accessible only after-the-fact, either with AT or with retrofitting. This process excludes those for whom access to information and services is already difficult, as well as being terribly inefficient and costly. This process is akin to building a house without the electrical infrastructure, only to have each room wired individually, as new appliances are purchased.

Conversely, if the infrastructure is put in place from the start, residents can progress from the reading lamp, to the television, to the personal computer, without having to add wiring to the den, the living room, and the home office one-at-a-time. Having the infrastructure in place avoids the wasteful expenditure of time and money that comes with retrofitting.

LOOKING FORWARD

Trends and developments in four areas will significantly impact the AT landscape in the coming years. The first is the growing recognition that access to electronic information and services is an important social right. This view will be further reinforced by demographic changes that will heighten the demand for AT and accessibility. A cursory examination of past technological developments suggests that technology both influences, and is influenced by AT. The government's program and policy approach aimed at eliminating barriers to full access for persons with disabilities indicates that this two-way effect is being considered.

SOCIAL RIGHT

Technology is a double-edged blade: it can empower or it can disable. Technology empowers when it levels the playing field by rendering disabilities irrelevant in a given context. In this case, it fosters equality. However, technology disables when it is developed without considering accessibility because it marginalizes segments of the population.

Canada's commitment to, and responsibility for promoting and ensuring a fair and egalitarian society are clearly expressed in such documents as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Employment Equity Act and more recently for federal government employees, the Policy on the Duty to Accommodate Persons with Disabilities in the Federal Public Service.

Looking forward, there is growing recognition that access to electronic information and services must be provided in Canada, and that less than full access for all, could exact significant costs, both social and economic. In social terms, it undermines the values of equality that have shaped this nation. In economic terms, the costs could involve potential litigation under the above Charter and Acts, compounded with restorative measures to retrofit the existing infrastructure.

DEMOGRAPHICS

Combined with the growing prominence of access as a social right, future demographic changes will also draw greater attention to accessibility issues.

Over the past 20 years, the number of persons with disabilities studying at the post secondary level has markedly increased. What is more, many of these individuals need adaptive technologies to use a computer effectively. As this trend continues, "an educated, technologically sophisticated market of consumers with disabilities will emerge that will be accustomed to making decisions and purchases… based on their experience with different brands and technologies." Students are growing more dependent on computer technology due to changes in the scholastic environment. As a result, opportunities for the development of AT to facilitate this relationship will continue to be widely sought.

This trend will most certainly have an effect on the workplace over time, as the level of educational attainment of persons with disabilities continues to rise "… graduates [with disabilities] are getting jobs, and there should be more and more of them…" in the workforce. Furthermore, as workplaces of all types become increasingly computerized, persons with disabilities will require AT to participate fully. This will also exert pressure on the demand for AT.

Much has been said about the up-and-coming wave of aging and retiring baby boomers. In general, they will have a profound impact on Canadian society, and more specifically, on technology and AT. Internet use among the elderly (60 and over) is considerably lower than among younger people, yet this is the group where use is fastest growing. Furthermore, as Internet and computer savvy baby boomers reach retirement age, computer use among the elderly will increase dramatically.

The significance of this trend is highlighted when we consider that in 2001, 3.6 million Canadians living in households reported having activity limitations, which translates to a disability rate of 12.4%. Mary Frances Laughton, Chief of the Assistive Devices Industry Office at Industry Canada points out that it is instructive to conceptualize disability as a "…continuum on which we all fall at some point or other." As the graphic indicates, the likelihood of finding oneself on this continuum increases with age.

The elderly and people with disabilities will demand flexibility and adaptability from their computers and the Internet. In the coming years, accessibility will be a foundational component of the IT infrastructure, including information and services delivery. It is from this perspective that Janice McNamara, Executive Director of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association, points out that "technology will drive the disability agenda" in the coming years in Canada.

TECHNOLOGY TRENDS

In addition to demographic and social drivers, advances in technology are also driving the accessibility agenda. Often, technology is initially developed to meet the needs of persons with disabilities only to be subsequently adopted for mainstream use. In other words, AT becomes IT. Through this progression, methods of accessibility for persons with disabilities are generalized among the public and they become methods of accessibility for everyone.

Voice recognition software, which allows people with mobility, dexterity, or cognitive impairments to manipulate their computers orally, is often used as an illustration of this process. This product was initially developed as an adaptive aid for persons with disabilities; however, the general population quickly discovered its utility and found as a result gains in productivity. The case for speech synthesis software is somewhat similar. This type of software reads Web pages and the desktop environment, providing blind or visually impaired individuals with auditory representations of the desktop environment. Initially developed as AT, its mainstream use is growing as people enjoy the benefits of accessing data aurally as well as visually. As these products drop in price and improve in quality, they will become standard fare for mainstream computer users.

The growth of broadband connections and the increasing presence of wireless devices that access the Internet are two trends that highlight accessibility challenges for persons with disabilities, as well as for many users of emerging mainstream technology. When the Internet moved from text-based to graphics-based with the advent of Graphical User Interface (GUI) browsers, access with existing text-based AT was limited in this new environment. The AT industry inevitably caught up to mainstream technology, although only temporarily. The continuing move from dial-up to broadband will once again render some forms of AT obsolete, as Web content becomes increasingly "rich" and those using dial-up and text-browsers gradually find their access reduced.

As discussed earlier, technology is a double-edged blade and broadband is no exception. With its capacity to move great amounts of data, broadband has great potential to offer sign language translation and captioning through the Web in remote locations where previously doing so might have required exceptional efforts. A faster, more robust TTY system running over the Internet is another potential service that broadband could eventually make possible.

Another benefit of broadband and multimedia is that they offer the potential of accessing information according to user preferences or needs. In other words, the content (information) can be separated from its form (format) whereby individuals can access information in the modality that best suits their needs. Whether through a wireless handheld device or a PC's broadband Internet access, users can customize information according to their preferences whether visual, graphical, aural, etc.

This potential comes with some risk - if improperly or incompletely coded, multimedia can be a virtual vault for information, keeping it locked away from those using AT or older technologies. An example would be a video without captioning or other text equivalents.

This concern is underscored with the advent of cellular telephones and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) through which computers are "moving off the desktop." These are examples of increasingly popular mainstream technologies that depend on text alternatives for graphics and other non-text data. In the years to come, if access for these devices remains too limited, the issue of accessibility could become mainstream. Furthermore, given that PDAs and mobile phones with messaging capabilities also enhance accessibility for persons with disabilities, they could become a form of AT. As such, accessibility for these products will be a priority.

These trends point to a growing demand for customized and personalized interactions with IT. Very simply, "People are getting more ergonomically focused. They want technology to interact with them on their terms. Technology needs to become more flexible," points out Lawrence Euteneier, Manager, Web Accessibility Office at Industry Canada. Human-centred design is another way to state this. It reflects an approach to technology where every user, regardless of ability, can interact with the IT environment in a way that suits their preferences. Technology that is based on universal design principles is flexible, and therefore accessible to all. This is the direction in which AT and IT are heading. FEDERAL GOVERNMENT TRENDS

The Speech from the Throne 2002, entitled "The Canada We Want," expresses the government's commitment to removing the "barriers to participation in work and learning for persons with disabilities." To this end, the federal government together with the provincial and territorial governments will strive to create a Canada more inclusive of persons with disabilities. Similarly, the Office for Disability Issues will aim to "…advance the Government of Canada's Disability Agenda through collaboration with other branches of Human Resources Development Canada and other federal departments and agencies." This program and policy approach (as opposed to the legislative approach of the U.S.) will continue to eliminate the barriers to full access for persons with disabilities.

The Federated Architecture Program and the Accessibility Domain are taking steps to ensure that the federal government's IM/IT infrastructure will be accessible to all. As Rodney Carpenter, Senior Policy Analyst with the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat's Architecture and Standards points out, "accessibility needs to be recognized as part of the infrastructure… that is the major trend." Indeed, within the federal government there is a growing recognition of the importance of making the government's own IM/IT infrastructure accessible. This is based on the principle that the Government of Canada "has a responsibility to ensure that it can provide services to all citizens [and therefore] … must be accessible to all citizens and address their specific access requirements."

There are also departmental initiatives to make services and information accessible. The Industry Canada Web4All pilot project will ensure accessibility to the Internet. The program is operated from local communities where accessible kiosks or workstations are set up for public use. Web4All obtains licenses for various accessibility software and hardware products, which it then leases as a bundle to be installed on a local kiosk, workstation community centres, or public libraries. Access cards with stored user preferences specify which AT is to be deployed in each case. This type of technology is gaining momentum and is expected to play an important role as a cost-effective way to ensure accessibility throughout a given network or program environment.

The National Library of Canada's Council on Access to Information for Print-disabled Canadians is another initiative working to ensure that all Canadians can access "information in a timely, affordable, and equitable manner." Their work, with documents like the Manager's Guide to Multiple Formats, will protect the right to access information for the three million Canadians who are print-disabled.

The Accessible Procurement Toolkit developed by the Assistive Devices Industry Office (ADIO) is another important tool that will promote accessibility in the Government of Canada. The Toolkit is a reference for individuals who are purchasing equipment or services for the office. It "provides requirements describing features and design principles that must be provided to a vendor to ensure 'universal accessibility' of the product or service." This toolkit is an important step in ensuring that services and equipment are accessible when purchased across government.

Since the 1990s several departments have taken steps to accommodate their employees with disabilities by providing programs and services geared towards accommodation, education and awareness. For example, since 1991, Environment Canada has had its own Adaptive Computer Technology (ACT) program and in 1998 Human Resources Development Canada followed suit. In 2000, HRDC launched the e-ACT Web site to provide information on accessibility to the GoC technical community, which it hopes will continue to promote this trend across government.

The federal government's Common Look & Feel (CLF) guidelines are designed to allow individuals "to distinguish federal programs and services from others and successfully navigate from one federal site to another to find the information they need." Within the CLF, the Government of Canada is showing its ongoing commitment to accessibility by "designing sites to serve the widest possible audience and the broadest possible range of hardware and software platforms, from assistive devices to emerging technologies."

CLF is based on a system of Web content accessibility checkpoints developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The checkpoints range from priority levels 1 to 3. Meeting all Priority 1, 2 and 3 checkpoints ensures the greatest degree of accessibility. The degree of accessibility drops incrementally if Web content only meets Priority 1 and 2, or only Priority 1 checkpoints.

Current accessibility standards for CLF require that only W3C Level 2 Priorities be met, which guarantee a consistent level of accessibility. However, this does not represent the highest possible degree of accessibility and continues to pose difficulties for people with disabilities, particularly when accessing complex Web content and functionality. Notwithstanding the limits to the accessibility of its on-line presence, the Government of Canada "…is committed to solving these problems, which is commendable."

OPPORTUNITIES

The impressive array of programs and services is a testament to the government's effort to make IT more accessible to all. However, additional challenges remain as programs and services, as well as access to technology (including AT) vary throughout the country: across departments in the federal government; across the provinces and territories; across income levels; across individuals with different types of disabilities; from rural to urban areas; from private to public sectors; from general to indigenous populations.

The digital divide is a complex and shifting issue. Yet the challenges it presents can also be viewed as opportunities for action.

LEGISLATION

There is an opportunity to put in place Canadian legislation comparable to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act in the United States. This legislation requires that the electronic information and data of federal government departments and agencies must be accessible to persons with disabilities, including those working for the federal government or members of the public. Similarly, Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act mandates telecommunications manufacturers and service providers to make their products and services accessible to people with disabilities. No such legislation exists in Canada. There are policies within the federal government that address these issues, such as the Treasury Board's "Duty to Accommodate" policy and the CLF guidelines, however, they do not carry the weight of legislation and their reach does not extend beyond the Government of Canada.

POLICIES, STANDARDS AND GUIDELINES

Notwithstanding the role of the Office for Disability Issues, and HRDC programs for persons with disabilities, the decentralized nature of Canadian information and service delivery presents specific challenges. Due to the absence of a national coordinating body to administer services for persons with disabilities, there exist inter provincial/territorial inconsistencies in information and program delivery. Currently, only four provinces subsidize the purchase of AT for their residents. What is more, these subsidies are not portable if residents leave the province.

To address this issue, common standards for accessibility throughout the country could be developed. The opportunity here is to establish a set of national policies and programs that bring uniformity across the country.

With the CLF guidelines, the federal government has taken significant steps to improve the accessibility of its on-line presence. Yet, there are opportunities for further improvement in three areas.

Good opportunities are also available to strengthen the Canadian AT industry by establishing a procurement policy or funding formula with built-in specifications for accessibility. Assessing funding or procurement requests through a list of accessibility criteria such as the Assistive Devices Industry Office's Accessible Procurement Toolkit would go a long way to making accessibility pervasive. Such regulations could stimulate the Canadian AT industry if requirements for buying Canadian products were also put in place.

Canadians remain largely unaware of accessibility issues, products, and training. In fact, Catherine Fichten, Project Director of the Adaptech Project at Dawson College in Montreal, has noted that the "lack of information at large is probably one of the worst problems…encountered." The wave of retiring boomers will create a need for technology that is flexible, customizable, and accessible. This cohort is unfamiliar with AT and as disability rates rise, many will not know where to turn to maintain previous levels of access. Again, this points to an opportunity for governments and stakeholders to take the lead in disseminating information about accessibility and AT, as well as how to use AT.

English speaking users who have access to AT enjoy a broad range of products from which to choose. However, upon examination, one quickly gleans that Francophones in Canada do not enjoy the same level of service. In fact, Francophones with disabilities often rely on sub-standard translations of English AT products, leaving them at a social and economic disadvantage when compared with their Anglophone counterparts.

The disparity between English and French AT availability and the fact that other French nations around the globe are far behind Canada in terms of accessibility leaves Canada with "…a wonderful opportunity to be the world leader in the Francophonie" by becoming a leader in the development of French AT products.

As Bill Shackleton, IM/IT Accessibility Architect with E-Ramp points out "…the issue of accessibility goes well beyond Web pages. It's much more strategic and comprehensive." The coming years will bring a growing and emphatic awareness that accessibility should permeate not just the technology ventures of the Government of Canada, but all of its activities.

CONCLUSION

At present, two alternate futures exist and Canada stands at the junction, about to take its first steps down one path or the other. The first simply continues with the accessibility cycle where technological development treats accessibility as an afterthought, added to IT after-the-fact. This approach is costly because it involves retrofitting of products and systems, and it is also exclusionary and undemocratic.

The second possible future points to a horizon where the accessibility cycle is ended, where technology is designed to be universally accessible from the outset, where AT becomes IT. The social, demographic, technology and government trends examined above point to this direction, to a technology that is based on accessibility and is therefore empowering, inclusive, and democratic.

The first path is unsustainable. The second path requires the will to tackle the challenges identified in this forecast and to seize the opportunities presented. This may involve a certain degree of uncertainty; however, the long-term prospects indicate that not taking action could involve greater risks and costs.

As stated by Prime Minister Chrétien, access to equal opportunities is an essential condition of citizenship. Technology plays a central role in our modern information society and to limit its accessibility for any segment of the population is unsustainable. It is incumbent on all Canadians to ensure that conditions prevail that allow every citizen to access information and services equally.

APPENDIX A - Links to Canadian Federal Technology-Related Programs for People with Disabilities

Industry Canada

Accessible Procurement Toolkit: http://www.apt.gc.ca/dListProdsE.asp?Action=''&Id='M'

Assistive Devices Industry Office, Industry Canada: http://strategis.ic.gc.ca/epic/internet/inadio-biaaf.nsf/vwGeneratedInterE/home

Web-4-All: http://www.web4all.ca/w4asite/english/home_e.htm

Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat

Common Look and Feel, Accessibility Section: http://www.cio-dpi.gc.ca/clf-upe/1/1_e.asp

Policy on the Duty to Accommodate Persons with Disabilities in the Federal Public Service: http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/pubs_pol/hrpubs/TB_852/ppaed_e.asp

The Federated Architecture Program, Accessible Government: http://www.cio-dpi.gc.ca/fap-paf/documents/iteration/iterationtb_e.asp

Others

Adaptive Technology Centre (ACT), Human Resources Development Canada: http://www.act.gc.ca

Services for People with Disabilities, Canada Customs and Revenue Agency: http://www.ccra-adrc.gc.ca/E/pub/tg/rc4064/rc4064-e.html#P103_4037

Mapping for the Visually Impaired, Natural Resources Canada: http://tactile.nrcan.gc.ca/page.cgi?url=index_e.html

National Library of Canada Council on Access to Information for Print-disabled Canadians: http://www.nlc-bnc.ca/accessinfo/index-e.html

Bibliography

"Access for All Through Technology: Toward an Accessible and Inclusive Information Technology," The Interdepartmental Task Force on the Integration of Persons with Disabilities through Information and Communications, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat. Accessed on March 4, 2003. Available from: http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/ee/pmp/promo/access10-PR_e.asp?printable=True.

"Advancing the Inclusion of Persons With Disabilities: A Government of Canada Report, December 2002." Human Resources Development Canada. Accessed on March 26, 2003. Available from: http://www.hrdc-drhc.gc.ca/hrib/sdd-dds/odi/documents/AIPD/fdr001.shtml.

"About this Toolkit," Accessible Procurement Toolkit. Access on March 9, 2003. Available from: http://www.apt.gc.ca/AboutE.asp?Action=''&Id='M'.

Asuncion, J., Fichten, C.S., Fossey, M., Barile, M., "Dialoguing with Developers and Suppliers of Adaptive Computer Technologies: Data and Recommendations," Universal Access in the Information Society, 1:3 (2002).

"CLF - Accessibility Section," Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat. Accessed on March 23, 2003. Available from: http://www.cio-dpi.gc.ca/clf-upe/1/1_e.asp.

Cossette, L., A Profile of Disability in Canada, 2001, Statistics Canada, December 2002. Accessed on 5 March 2003. Available from: http://www.statcan.ca/english/freepub/89-577-XIE/89-577-XIE01001.pdf.

"Fulfilling the Promise," National Library of Canada Council on Access to Information for Print-disabled Canadians. Accessed on March 26, 2003. Available from: http://www.nlc-bnc.ca/accessinfo/index-e.html.

Généreux, C., Barile, M., Robillard, C., Lamb, D., Fichten, C.S., "Six Conditions for Full Access to Computer and Information Technologies (IT) by Postsecondary Students with Disabilities", Document presented to Human Resources Development Canada and to provincial governing bodies. Dawson College, Montreal, 2001.

"Government of Canada, Federated Architecture: Iteration One, June 2000," Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat. Accessed on March 8, 2003. Available from: http://www.cio-dpi.gc.ca/fap-paf/documents/iteration/iterationtb_e.asp.

Hertz, J., Huyler, L,. Levenson, M., Moulton, G., Accessible Technology in Today's Business: Case Studies for Success, Microsoft Press, Redmond Washington, 2002.

"Information for: Persons with Disabilities," Human Resources Development Canada. Accessed on March 19, 2003. Available from: http://www.hrdc-drhc.gc.ca/dept/guide/pdisa.shtml.

"In Unison: Persons with Disabilities in Canada," 2000, accessed on March 4, 2003. Available from: http://socialunion.gc.ca/In_Unison2000/iu03100e.html.

"Manager's Guide to Multiple Formats," Assistive Devices Industry Office, Industry Canada, 2002. Accessed on March 26, 2003. Available from: http://www.nlc-bnc.ca/accessinfo/s36-202.001-e.html.

"1998 Amendment to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act," Section 508. Accessed on April 22. Available from: http://www.section508.gov/index.cfm.

Paciello, M. G., Web Accessibility for People with Disabilities, CPM Books, Lawrence Kansas, 2000

"Section 255 (of the Telecommunications Act)" Federal Communications Commission, Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau. Accessed on April 22. Available from: http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/dro/section255.html.

Shackleton, B. "A Cycle of Accidental Systemic Discrimination", E-Ramp Inc., Accessed on March 9, 2003. Available from: http://www.eramp.com/access.asp.

Silver, C., Connectedness Series: Internet Use Among Older Canadians, Statistics Canada, 2001. Accessed on March 4, 2003. Available from: http://www.statcan.ca/english/research/56F0004MIE/56F0004MIE2001004.pdf.

"The Canada We Want: Speech from the Throne to Open the Second Session of the Thirty-Seventh Parliament of Canada. Accessed on March 19, 2003. Available from: http://www.sft-ddt.gc.ca/hnav/hnav07_e.htm.

"The Daily," Statistics Canada, March 26, 2001. Accessed February 18, 2003. Available from: http://www.statcan.ca/Daily/English/010326/d010326a.htm.

"Web Accessibility Office: About Us" Web-4-All, Industry Canada, Accessed on March 8, 2003. Available from: http://www.web4all.ca/w4asite/english/about_e.htm.

"Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0," World Wide Web Consortium, Chisholm,W., Vanderheiden, G., Jacobs, I, Editors, accessed on April 21, 2003. Available from: http://www.w3.org/TR/WAI-WEBCONTENT/#priorities.


Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2004 Table of Contents 
Return to Table of Proceedings


Reprinted with author(s) permission. Author(s) retain copyright.