Landmark Decision a Victory for All Blind Canadians by Donna J. Jodhan

A Bit about Me

My name is Donna Jill Jodhan, and I am the president of my own company, Sterling Creations. You can find me at www.sterlingcreations.ca.  I live and work in Toronto, and in addition to owning my own company, I am an accessibility advocate, author, blogger, editor, mentor, and law student.   
 
I have written three financial books: "Secrets to Financial Success," "Untapped Wealth," and "Untapped Wealth Discovered," all under the pen names of Kerry J. Harrison and Jeff N. Marquis.  I am the author of the Detective DJ Crime Crusher audio mysteries series, which can be found at www.donnajodhan.com. I write weekly blogs at www.donnajodhan.blogspot.com, and I am attending distance learning law classes at the University of London England.  I plan to complete my studies in the spring of 2015 and to be an attorney by the spring of 2016. 
 
You can follow me on Twitter at accessibleworld and at author_jodhan, and you can connect with me on Skype at habsfan0526.
 
I invite you now to read the story of my 12-year journey along the highway to the fight for equal access to information on Canadian government web sites. I hope my journey will inspire others to embark on similar journeys.  I did it because of my commitment to ensuring that all blind Canadians, especially our kids of the future, will have an equal opportunity to access information and that their right to do so under the Canadian Charter of Rights will be recognized, protected, and respected.

A Brief Introduction

We are living in an informational society and a knowledge-based economy, and our need to retrieve, process, and use information on an ongoing basis is of a vital importance. In short, we need information in order to survive.
 
We use information to plan our financial future; to find employment; to take advantage of education opportunities; to discover social programs; to learn how to take care of our health and safety; to do research; to communicate with each other; and to keep abreast of everything around us. We need to be able to obtain information on a timely basis.  Without access to information, our world would be dark.
 
What drove me to launch my charter challenge against the Canadian government? In a nutshell, between 2000 and 2004, blind people lacked access to many Canadian government web sites.  They had a variety of problems, including: inaccessible web content, inaccessible PDF content, unavailability of documents and files in alternate formats, inaccessible forms, and service reps at the toll-free numbers were unfamiliar with requests for information in alternate formats such as braille, large print, etc. And the requested information arrived months later, if at all.
 
In 2004, I applied for a position at Statistics Canada and was appalled to learn that this very prominent government department was not willing and prepared to allow me to write my qualifying exams in either electronic format or in braille, and they decided that I did not qualify for the position based on a process that was different from what was being used to evaluate the mainstream applicant. In 2005, I launched a human rights complaint against Statistics Canada, and I sued them for willful and reckless discrimination. (This was settled in my favor in 2008.)  A year later I found myself being unable to participate in the national census due to a lack of proper accommodations for blind Canadians.

The Pre-Court Activities

I consulted with human rights lawyers in June 2006, and was reassured that I had a legitimate case to launch a charter challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights. With the assistance of these lawyers, I managed to obtain court challenges funding to start proceedings.  My application for these types of funds was the very last one approved before the Canadian government ended the program in July 2006.
 
My lawyers sent a letter to the Canadian government in November 2006, requesting that consultation take place between government and the blind Community over their inaccessible websites and an outline was given as to why we felt that their websites were inaccessible. In December, they received a response, thanking us for our concern but saying that nothing was wrong with the government's web sites.  We filed suit against the Canadian government's inaccessible web sites in June 2007. In July, the government attempted to have the case thrown out of court – and failed.
 
Between 2007 and 2009, several attempts were made to mediate a settlement, but they all failed.  The Canadian government wanted me to drop my case in return for a promise to bring their web sites up to accessibility compliant standards, but I rejected these promises because of a mistrust of their intentions and objectives.
 
In 2009, affidavits were exchanged on both sides.  The government hired Cynthia Waddell, an American consultant on disabilities issues, and I hired the services of Jutta Treviranus, one of the top Canadian and international experts on accessibility issues.  I was called to testify, and over a four-hour period I faced over 189 questions from the government's lawyers, many of which attacked my personal and professional integrities.  Both Waddell and Treviranus also faced tough questioning from opposing lawyers.
 
Finally, in February 2010, the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians launched an online petition in support of my case.  More than 500 people from Canada, the U.S.A., and other nations signed the petition, but it was rejected by the government.  Why? The government did not accept online petitions.

Garnering Support

Most organizations that I contacted were extremely reluctant to support my challenge. Thanks to Robin East and John Rae, the president and vice president of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians at that time, that this was the only organization that was courageous enough to walk alongside me in my journey.  Many Canadians, both blind and sighted, along with others from around the world, came forward to support this humungous challenge.

Attending Court

In September 2010, I sued the government over its inaccessible web sites.  The hearing was held in front of a judge of the lower federal court, with arguments being presented from lawyers on both sides.
 
Arguments from my lawyers included: unequal access to information on government web sites; the inability to access web content, complete forms, and download info in an accessible format; requested information rarely arrived on time, if at all; sighted assistance was necessary to request and submit confidential information; sighted assistance was needed to complete the 2006 national census.
 
The government's lawyers argued as follows: blind Canadians should not expect to have equal access to the Internet; instead, they could easily mail or fax their requests, or visit Service Canada offices. Blind Canadians could ask a sighted friend or family member to help them complete forms on the Internet, submit online requests for information, and read content on the Internet. Finally, the lawyers stated I did not possess the appropriate skills and equipment to surf their web sites.
 
This three-day court session received extensive Canadian coverage; national newspapers, TV and radio stations reported on it and interviewed me and I was also interviewed by the RNIB in Britain.  Court was well attended by members of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians and other friends, and the judge made specific note of the good attendance.
 
On Nov. 29, 2010, the court handed down its decision: the Canadian government was guilty of violating my rights to equal access to information. They were given 15 months to make all government web sites fully accessible, and the judge retained jurisdiction to monitor their progress.
 
In February 2011, the government appealed the decision, and three organizations filed for intervention status.  They were the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, the Council for Canadians with Disabilities, and the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians.  Only the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians was granted said status.
 
The federal appeals court heard the government's appeal Nov. 16-17, 2011, and the government presented the same arguments it had given earlier in front of three appeals judges. The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians argued the following: that despite the fact that Canada had recently signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, here they were denying the rights of blind Canadians!
 
Six months later, on May 30, 2012, the judges returned a unanimous decision in my favor. The appeals court ordered the Canadian government to bring all of its web sites up to accessibility standards, and to institute a monitoring system to ensure that the government made all of its web sites accessible.  Several blindness organizations across Canada issued press releases, and the case received extensive media coverage from national newspapers, TV and radio stations, as well as coverage from the U.S and worldwide. 
 
This was a landmark victory for all blind Canadians, especially for blind Canadian kids of the future.  Something had to be done in order to ensure that our rights to equal access to information would be recognized, respected, and protected.  This would ensure that our rights to employment, education, and a barrier-free Internet would be a given, not a privilege.

How I Managed to Cope

Why did I persist?  It was not an easy task.  I did not do this for just me. I kept telling myself that it needed to be done. I kept thinking of the kids of the future. I prayed and focused a lot.  I took full advantage of all of the support that I received from e-mails, phone calls, articles, and Facebook postings that came from Canadians, Americans and all around the globe.

Final Thoughts

I never expected this to get as far as it did. I did it because, in my mind, it was the right thing to do. I never asked for any monetary compensation and I never received any. I gave hundreds of hours of my personal time to this case and so did my lawyers, accessibility experts, and others. And I would gladly do it again! 
 
It has been a humbling and learning experience. It is not something for the faint of heart!
No textbook and no one could ever have prepared me for this landmark journey.
 
Why did the Canadian government choose to spend millions of dollars on something that they knew they were violating - the rights of blind Canadians? Canadian government web sites are more accessible now, but there is still much to be done.  They have set up a monitoring system and are employing developers to help fix their web sites.  However, they are still very reluctant to share their progress with the blind community, and this is of great concern to us as we have no way of measuring their progress.
 
This case has received, and continues to get, international attention in disability-related circles.  I thank everyone associated with this case for having stuck with me to the end.  Here's to the next stage of a continuing journey!