The pandemic has made it clear that access to digital services is an essential need for all Canadians. However, too many people with disabilities have been isolated during lockdowns without sufficient digital connection. With more than 6.2 million people in Canada over the age of 15 living with a disability, it is critical that digital services fully accommodate the diverse needs of individuals with impairments in sight, hearing or speech, or neurological conditions.

The fourth part of the Ryerson Leadership Lab’s Overcoming Digital Divides workshop series explored how we can close gaps in internet access and use for people with disabilities during and after the pandemic.

More than a year into the pandemic, almost one-third of employees in Canada are still working remotely and nearly all students in Ontario are learning virtually. Yet, the Canadian Survey on Disability found that more than two million Canadians with disabilities may face barriers in accessing information and communications technology. In 2018, about 20 per cent of people with disabilities did not use the internet, compared to 10 per cent overall. Without implementing the right steps to improve digital accessibility in our e-learning and digital services, people with disabilities will continue to be left out of these critical spaces.

Enabling people with disabilities to lead independent and self-sufficient lives requires that we incorporate digital accessibility when designing our institutions and programs, creating our digital infrastructure and transitioning to online-first provision of critical services.

Digital government: Prioritizing accessibility and inclusivity

The federal government has taken some steps to make government-run digital services more accessible. For example, the Accessible Technology Program is a five-year initiative that co-funds assistive and adaptive technologies to help people with disabilities fully participate in the workplace. The program has funded wearable technologies for visually impaired individuals to access digital content in various formats, as well as software that lets users control their computers using head movements and a standard webcam, Minister of Digital Government Joyce Murray told the workshop. Shared Services Canada has also created an Accessibility, Accommodation and Adaptive Computer Technology program that helps government departments design, procure and test solutions for better compliance with digital accessibility requirements and provides workplace accommodations for public service employees with disabilities.

However, there are still significant gaps in the quality and accessibility of digital services provided by the private and public sector. The federal government’s digital transformation will require system-wide changes to ensure Canadians are receiving efficient and accessible digital services. Murray said the federal government’s priorities for developing its digital strategy will include modernizing government-wide IT systems to directly address accessibility needs; harmonizing each department’s IT infrastructure under one government-wide system that will ensure accessibility is fully integrated across all government networks; and hiring 5,000 people with disabilities by 2025 to create interdisciplinary teams that can tackle long-standing institutional barriers to digital innovation and inclusive design.

Modernizing accessibility laws and training

Although the federal government requires federally regulated organizations to identify, remove and prevent barriers in information and communications technology under the Accessible Canada Act, our legal frameworks have been ineffective at creating real change in our digital spaces. Canada still needs a strong, federally mandated information and communication standard that can enforce specific accessibility requirements, said David Lepofsky, a lawyer and disability rights advocate. The longer the federal government waits, the harder it will be to improve accessibility, as barriers continue to pile up and harden within our current infrastructure, he said. Moreover, provincial accessibility standards, such as the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), must be strengthened to provide concrete, targeted and actionable requirements to remove accessibility barriers. For example, accessibility standards should eliminate the use of PDF forms that are inaccessible for people with visual impairments, he said.

In addition, the government should enforce accessibility standards by making federal or provincial funding for digital infrastructure projects conditional on the recipient removing accessibility barriers, Lepofsky suggested. Under the AODA, fines are rare and regulators do not conduct sufficient, on-site inspections, he said. Unless conditions are attached and standards are enforced, organizations will continue to circumvent accessibility requirements.

Mo Dhaliwal, founder and director of strategy at the digital creative agency Skyrocket, proposed that the government shift from providing incentives to the private sector that encourage inclusive design solutions to mandating comprehensive accessibility requirements. Relying on imprecise appeals that highlight the market benefits of accessibility (such as better user acquisition or the ability to advertise services as being accessible) is no longer enough to ensure service providers in Canada meet accessibility standards, he said. Clear and regularly enforced accessibility standards will oblige private-sector companies to adapt and comply — over time, positioning accessibility as an accepted norm among digital service providers.

Wider adoption of accessibility standards will also require upskilling workers so they can develop and implement innovative digital design solutions, said Jess Mitchell, senior manager of research and design for the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University. Training students in technology and computer sciences without including accessibility training in their core curriculums is impeding our progress toward developing a barrier-free world. While certifications and specialized training for accessibility skills may be a step in the right direction, all workers in all types of industries and occupations must incorporate accessibility and inclusive design approaches in their work, Mitchell added. Creating an accessibility-centred approach to digital services begins with educating all workers (not just IT departments) about the ethics of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation that might inadvertently create barriers to access for people with disabilities. While companies have delegated accessibility enforcement to a few specialists in order to avoid lawsuits and complaints, incorporating the lived experience of people with disabilities should become a meaningful part of every corporate operation, Dhaliwal added.

Understanding the intersectionality of accessibility issues

Not all people with disabilities have the same needs. Low-income people with disabilities face compounded barriers: in addition to physical difficulties using certain digital services, it may also be harder for them to access an internet connection that meets their needs at the market price, said Heather McCain, executive director of Creating Accessible Neighbourhoods. Providing internet subsidies with government disability assistance is one potential approach to address this.

The internet can also provide a sense of community and mental health support for people with disabilities. As part of incorporating an inclusive ethic in our workplaces coming out of the pandemic, we must consider the diverse needs of people with disabilities and conduct targeted outreach to those who would not otherwise have access to barrier-free opportunities, McCain said.

Enabling people with disabilities to lead independent and self-sufficient lives requires that we incorporate digital accessibility when designing our institutions and programs, creating our digital infrastructure and transitioning to online-first provision of critical services. Improving digital accessibility in Canada will involve mandating enhanced accessibility standards, fully enforcing compliance with these requirements, and training at all levels on inclusive design approaches. Only then will people with disabilities have the tools they need to equally access health, learning and work opportunities in an increasingly digitized post-pandemic world.

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Nour Abdelaal is a Policy and Research Assistant at the Ryerson Leadership Lab, specializing in technology and cybersecurity, and was formerly a Political Assistant at the U.S. Consulate General in Toronto.

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Sam Andrey is Director of Policy and Research at Ryerson Leadership Lab.