AODA Alliance

David Lepofsky: Thank you very much.

It’s an honour to be here, and a huge credit to OCAD University to be convening this event.

17 years ago today, a tiny coalition that I had the privilege of taking a leadership role in, received a letter from the person who was then to be elected within weeks, the Premier of the Province of Ontario promising to enact an Accessibility Law. How have we done in the past 17 years, particularly in the area of information technology? What more do we need to do?

One of the important interesting issues that I can tell you, having first been the chair for the Ontarians with Disability Act committee, we worked hard to have a weak one passed in 2001 and the stronger one passed in 2005, and then the current one the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities [Act] Alliance. I can give you a few quick hints on how we work it and how we launch our non-governmental campaign to get it effectively implemented.

One of our techniques and one that perhaps only a blind person like me can do. I’m going to do a little survey. I do it in every group gathering. It is entirely unscientific, and therefore it is really good. Let’s see if this subject touches you personally, the issue of accessibility in public.

I want you to raise your hand if you have no disability now and you are certain you will never get one. Raise your hand. I don’t see any hands.

tape starts (laughter)

In fact, I never do. This is a campaign about accessibility for the weirdest minority of all. Everybody either has a disability now, or has someone near and dear to them who has a disability or will get one eventually since aging is the most common cause of disability.

We won this legislation by arguing that we are the minority of everyone. Let me take this and translate it to the information technology context in a moment.

But another way we won it was in fact by using information technology.

Watch how we do this.

If you were interested in learning more about our campaign, sign up for our e-mail updates. A nice woman named Freddy is going to pass around a couple of lists. If you are interested in learning about how we are waging this campaign, giving us feedback on your own ideas,

We have people following us around the world not just around Ontario. Just give us your e-mail address — print, don’t write it. Print it legibly. And we will plug you in. Because we use e-mail as a way to get out our word, to gather ideas, to mobilize support and win this campaign from this legislation back in 2005. And that’s what we are using now to also campaign for its effective enforcement.

We are also branching out a little into social media, if you want to
follow us on Twitter, we’re @aodaalliance. If for any reason you don’t sign up now, but want to sign up later, send an e-mail to this:

Through that little one minute snippet I just delivered, we built our movement, from one end of the province to another. This evening you are going to a reception at the legislature. It was in a committee room of that legislature where about 20 of us met back in November 1994 with a vision of a fully accessible Ontario.

Let me turn for a moment to talk about why the information technology sector is an especially important place to wage a campaign for accessibility.

For several reasons: For those of us who advocate in this area of accessibility we have to be general practitioners. One minute we are answering questions about accessible buses and subways. Another minute, accommodating people in the workplace, people with disabilities in the workplace. Yet another minute it may be about trying to find an accessible polling station to cast your vote in an election. And in another minute it’s talking about what standards for website accessibility should be implemented and when. We have to be ready for all of those.

What we learned is this: the information technology sector is the sector with no excuses. It is the sector that is most able to deliver accessibility as compared to the others more quickly, more effectively, and at least cost.

Why is that? Removing all barriers always cost more. Preventing new barriers cost little if anything at all. And in the area of information technology, unlike the area of buildings, offices, houses and apartments, we don’t need to talk about, for the most part, tearing down the old buildings or retrofitting them at all. We need to talk about making sure the new information is going to be accessible. You see, five years from now, information technology that you and I will use in our workplace, in our home, for communicating mobilely with each other, that information technology, we haven’t bought it yet. Not only haven’t we bought it yet, we haven’t contracted for it yet. Not only haven’t we contracted for it yet, it hasn’t been designed yet.

It hasn’t been invented yet.

So all we need to do is make a decision today that the information technology in our homes, our workplaces, our places where we deliver goods and services to the public, that it will be accessible and tell those who are making it, who are designing it now, make it accessible and it can be done.

We can make that decision now.

The reality is that the information technology sector is best able to deliver accessibility for another reason: It is all about innovation. Every company is trying to invent the newest, the coolest, the best, the cheapest, the most featured. They’re in a race with each other. Creativity and innovation is the touchstone of this sector.

Elevators are the elevators. Okay you can put braille on the buttons, you can put a voice on it. But elevators are elevators. But smartphones, computer, that’s all evolving. So this is an area [in which] with the proper government intervention, we can achieve full accessibility. We just need the will, the tools and the effective enforcement.

There are stunning examples of accomplishment. Apple, by putting VoiceOver in the iPhone and iPad and the iPod Touch, has I believe revolutionized universal design by mainstreaming [it]. The fact that you can borrow those guys, you can take anyone who has them that’s a recent purchase, a couple of clicks later and you can say I can use that too. It didn’t cost anything extra. No pushback with what’s this going to do for market share and all that sort of old fuddy duddy stuff. That’s all done. But even then, not that we are always just giving praise, believe me, Apple has some progress to make. The iPhone for a blind person is fabulous as a way to operate as a GPS, as a colour detector. About a million other access features on it that are great. But one player that happens to be a little weaker a lot weaker is as a phone. It’s hard to dial.

Try keeping your banker. Great, you can use Siri if your’re sitting in the back of a taxi. Just dictate aloud your confidential PIN. Now it’s not hard for Apple to take a genius that lead to VoiceOver and to the Siri and all those other accessibility features, an in kind phone, a really accessible phone. Not just all those other things. So the sector is capable of delivering accessibility. Touch screens, five years ago we would have said are the biggest problem. Apple has found ways to conquer it.

Other companies are trying to play catch-up. By demanding accessibility in the mainstream product, it’s the wave of the future.

How are we doing in Ontario? I would like to give you what I believe [is] a fair, even-handed assessment. There are some really important things we can be proud of and having led the coalition that fought for this legislation, I think we can claim a piece of the pride in the accomplishment. For one thing, we are to my knowledge the first and the only jurisdiction, that has legislatively set a deadline by which our jurisdiction, Ontario, must become fully accessible. Now some thought 20 years was too long. Others thought it might be too short. The fact of the matter is the deadline set the clock ticking. And from day one, we have said as a community coalition, are we on schedule?

And frankly, folks, we are not. We’re behind schedule. And at the rate we are going, we will not achieve that goal. Don’t just take my word for it. The government appointed its own independent review of the implementation of the disabilities act a couple of years ago. It rendered a report. It’s up on our website at and that report says that there needs to be substantial revitalization of how the government implements this legislation. In order for us to achieve that deadline. Now speakers of that design listed a number of really important and commendable efforts that are on-going. But there needs to be significantly more. So if you are outside of Ontario and you want to see what we are doing in order to learn from our experience, our recommendation as the community coalition that fought for this legislation and its successful and fighting for its effective implementation, is yes, talk to the government about what they are doing and how they have learned from experience, commendably, but also come to us. To see what more recently needs to be done. It’s on our website, and look at the government’s own independent review of its implementation of this legislation for a mandate on how it can do better. How are we doing in the specific area of information technology? Well, the fact that we have regulated it at all I think is commendable, and it’s an important step forward. The fact that we have mandated accessibility requirements for at least public sector and some private sector organizations in the areas of websites, of electronic kiosks and the procurement of goods and services including information technology.

These are important steps forward. And other jurisdictions should do the same. In fact, they should do the same, but they should do better so that Ontario will have to catch up with them. We are falling short in how we regulated in a few important areas. For one thing, we have created too many exemptions. And the exemptions fall below the requirements of our prevailing equal rights legislations, the Ontario human rights code. This is important because an organization that complies with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act is not, thereby, done. They have a prevailing obligation to meet the requirements of equality and effective reasonable accommodation under our human rights code: It prevails over the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. So the fact that the accessibility standards enacted in Ontario fall short of the human rights legal requirements means that organizations can’t just look to the what we said are too long timelines in our accessibility standards and say, okay, we can wait until then. They’ve got to act now. If anything, we are hoping that public and private sector organizations will say that we want to exceed the requirements of the accessibility standards and we want to get there sooner. And the more organizations that do that, the more their competitors are going to have to play catch-up or lose market share.

The accessibility standard in the area of information technology falls short by having [a] timeline that is too long, by having exemptions that are weaker – I should say, or too wide compared to the requirements of our human rights code, and our accessibility standards fall short in not prescribing more detail. Now the described video detail in the area of website accessibility and that’s important. But in the area of access to electronic kiosks and the procurement of goods, services and other information technology, we are falling short. They are too general. They’re too vague. We need more specifics. We are hoping that the government will put up guidelines and enough organizations will say they will live up to those guidelines even if they are more detailed than the regulation. But my recommendation in any jurisdiction is put your detail into the regulation itself. That’s what the government was recommended to do by the standards development committee that proposed extensive work in this area. Unfortunately the government didn’t listen on that important point.

We are moving forward, but we’re not moving forward quickly enough and we need to move forward — we need more detail, we need tighter timelines to get us there.

Let me tell you about one or two other quick things in Ontario. Our government, to its credit, committed to in the last provincial election at our request that it would develop and has implemented a 10-year infrastructure plan for government-run kiosks and information technology. We already have government 10 year infrastructure plan for built environment and it does includes accessibility commitments. That’s good. The government, however, did not include it in information technology electronic kiosks. We asked the government to commit to that in last fall’s election.

The good news is that they did. The bad news is subsequently wrote the two key ministers responsible for implementing it, to see what they were going to do about it, they sent us letters back thanking us for our great concern and our great advocacy, but didn’t answer the question. Bit of a recurring theme. Let me turn to one other really important area, which is what kind of resistance might one expect if one presses for access technology or information technology accessibility. One argument that is put is, oh, not that many people need it. I answered that one at the start of my presentation when I asked you to raise your hand. Eventually it will touch everyone. But I proposed a question asked earlier today. The fact is access technology or access to building regiments ultimately help everyone. I fought that case personally against the Toronto Transit Commission, Canada’s largest urban transit provider to require them to do something as simple as call out all bus and subway stops so we blind folks could know where we are.

At a relatively easy pace, every bus has a driver, every driver has a mouth and hopefully they know where they are. Toronto Transit Commission not only resisted but spent as much as $450,000 on lawyers to oppose. They lost. The fact that what I can tell you to learned from this is this: Most of the positive feedback I get on our now-consistent subway stop announcements on our buses, streetcars and subways, comes from sighted people — sighted people who say, thanks for the announcements. I couldn’t see out the window. It’s snowing. The windows are dirty. The bus is crowded. I’m reading a book.

The accommodations that help us, help everyone.

The accessible websites — I was hoping they would just hold up a note so I could just ignore them. Oh well.

So the fact that these accessibility measures not only in the long run cost little if anything, but they tend to benefit everyone. The next pushback is, oh, our company. We have a legacy system. We have a legacy system that’s 20 years old. How are we going to retrofit it? Well, fortunately in Ontario we are moving in the direction requiring things to be retrofitted over time. And that’s the standard to use. But frankly any company that’s going to continue to use 20-year-old technology, I think is not got a competitive edge for very long. But one way or another, whether it’s a legacy computer system or a brand new computer system, the fact is, human beings need to interact with it. And everybody, not just some human beings, should be able to. So if they are going to create some kind of user interface, create an accessible one. We know how to do it better now. It’s cheaper than ever now. It can be done.

So organizations may say, we’d like to do this but we don’t have the skill set. Our people don’t know how to build in accessibility. Well folks, this, as I said earlier, is the sector driven by innovation. I am aware in my profession — some of you are aware that I am a lawyer for some thirty years —, I’ve got an edge over the new graduates because I’ve been doing it longer. In the information technology they new graduates have the edge over the people who have been around for 30 years.

So as long as people like the Ontario College of Art and Design are helping to ensure that those who do design do it accessibly. The new graduates are coming along and if the existing workforce doesn’t want to get with the program, they have to rethink whether or not this is the field they should be working in. This is the industry of innovation. So it’s hardly for them to say no, we’re not really able to do innovation.

The final argument that they put forward, we want to be able to get our act out the door the soonest. And we don’t want to hold it up and doing all this pesky accessibility stuff. Well folks, getting something out of the door that people can’t use, that’s not a market edge; that’s a market disadvantage. If you get the product out the door quickly but build in accessibility in, you have a bigger market edge. So the case for doing this is really strong. The ways to do it, we have learned in part in Ontario, but you can learn as much from what we accomplished as from what we’ve learned doesn’t work and needs to be improved.

Let me conclude by reaching out to all of you by saying that we at the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance would like you to sign up for e-mail updates, at But also to send us ideas. We welcome feedback from you. If we are proposing something that doesn’t work, tell us a better way. If we are proposing something that is impractical, offer us a option that’s arguable. Let’s take the sector that is best positioned to deliver accessibility, that is most imbued with skills in the area of innovation to achieve full accessibility the quickest, far quicker than Ontario’s Accessibility Standards require so that it can become a beacon from which other sectors of our economy can learn. Thank you very much for the opportunity to let me speak with you this morning.

(applause) End of Tape

I should apologize, because of other commitments, I can’t stay for the rest of the day.

I would really love to. but I’m told I can take one or two questions right now if people have them.

>> We love you David.
David Lepofsky: Thank you very much.
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