Stakeholder Consultations on
Accessibility Issues for Persons with Disabilities

Final Report

Submitted to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission

April 18, 2008

CONNECTUS Consulting Inc. created the original version of the document, which has been translated by a third party.

Stakeholder Consultations on Accessibility
Issues for Persons with Disabilities

Final Report - Submitted to the CRTC

April 2008


CONNECTUS Consulting Inc. (CONNECTUS) is pleased to present the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC, the Commission) with its Final Report on Stakeholder Consultations on Accessibility Issues for Persons with Disabilities (the Study).

The Commission's has identified the need to research accessibility issues and processes for persons with disabilities in preparation for a Public Hearing to be held later in 2008-09.

Focusing on the areas of accessibility for persons with disabilities in telecommunications, broadcasting and new media, our Study centered on collecting a range of information from a series of consultations with the Canadian disability community.

We note from the outset that we have reported our findings on all accessibility issues noted from the consultations process, some of which may fall beyond either the regulatory jurisdiction of the Commission and/or the ability of the Commission to take any specific action or remedies.

Our Report is organized as follows.

First, we present a Summary of Key Findings.

Second, we present a brief snapshot of the population of persons with disabilities in Canadian society and describe the importance of communications and technology for this group.

Third, we present a summary of our findings from consultations with 18 organizations (and 32 representatives) from the Canadian disability community.

This section of our Report is in turn divided by:

  • Telecommunications
  • Broadcasting
  • New Media
  • Comments Concerning the CRTC
  • Comments on the Public Hearing

A list of organizations and individuals contacted is attached as an Appendix to our Report.

A Note on Methodology and Style

Consultations were primarily conducted by phone, except for those with Deaf and hard of hearing community groups which were carried out face to face with the use of sign language interpretation.1 Discussions typically lasted from one to two hours. Meticulous notes and/or recordings were taken of each session. Occasional follow up questions were carried out by phone or email.

We note that consultations took place with a wide cross section of the disability community, including groups representing Deaf/hard of hearing consumers; people who are blind or living with a visual disability or impairment; people with motion disabilities and wheelchair users; and people with cognitive disabilities.

In most cases, our findings are not reported in a disability-specific manner; that is, if an accessibility issue is reported from the findings, there is likely a wide consensus on the issue from the disability community. For example, small buttons or keys on wireless devices can be a barrier to people who are blind, those with a cognitive disability, those with limited use of their hands or others.

On occasion, we note a particular issue raised that concerns those with a specific disability, such as Deaf Canadians or people who are blind. In general, this is because of specific discussions that took place about products or services - TTYs (telephone/teletype machines) Relay Service, close captioning, descriptive video and others - that directly relate to these consumers.

We also make regular use of quotes derived from consultations in our Report. These are identified with single quotation marks ('.').

As a final note, we refer to the groups and individuals who took part in the consultations as 'participants', and use the term 'disability community' to reference the population of persons with disabilities in Canada.

A - Summary of Key Findings

Throughout the consultation process, the Canadian disability community expressed its deep concern that as the pace of communications technologies and devices accelerates, persons with disabilities will be faced with increasingly inaccessible products and services - promoting exclusion rather than inclusion in Canadian society.

This is because communications technologies - whether for telecommunications, broadcasting or new media - are not manufactured on the principle of universal design, which would enable far greater accessibility for persons with disabilities.

The single most pressing concern expressed by participants in the Study is the lack of universal design coupled with the absence of regulation for terminal equipment - primarily in telecommunications, and especially for wireless devices.

The result is that persons with disabilities face considerable barriers to access; as networks are upgraded, previously functional devices are rendered inoperable - or may no longer function with an assistive device.

Other barriers to access expressed by participants include the affordability of services and products (prohibitive for socio-economic reasons), design features such as size of keys, and the lack of service packages or customized options for persons with disabilities.

Customer service/support - in any sector of the economy including telecommunications, broadcasting and new media - presents another set of barriers for persons with disabilities, given (i) increasing reliance on voice recognition/command systems and (ii) increasing reduction of 1-800 service in favour of (largely inaccessible) web-based support.

The disability community is strongly in favour of increased regulation of the entire communications sector - largely because universal design and accessibility are not on the agendas of service providers, and it is perceived, will not become integrated into thinking without regulatory force.

On the telecommunications side, participants supported the notion of carriers and manufacturers working together (with the input of the disability community) to develop a basic, low-cost wireless device and to bring universal design thinking to the manufacturing process.

With respect to broadcasting, participants identified on-going issues with closed captioning and (especially) described video, and expressed concern that the transition to HD television will prove largely inaccessible to many people with disabilities. Portrayal concerns, lack of journalistic sensitivity to disability issues continue and lack of access to on-air employment continue to persist as issues.

Concerning new media, accessibility issues center on the lack of universal design for wireless devices, and particularly to the lack of universal (W3C) standards of accessibility for most websites - including those of many telecom carriers, broadcasters and programming distributors, Internet Service Providers and the Commission itself.

Participants further stated that access to new media by persons with disabilities is also inhibited by affordability factors, including the cost of computers and Internet connections. While Community Access sites can help, the requirement to leave one's home diminishes the goal of independent living.

While the CRTC has made significant strides in dealing with disability and accessibility issues, a general failure to provide sufficient regulation - particularly on the telecommunications and terminal equipment side - has resulted in significant barriers for the disability community.

Particular frustration was expressed over a lack of success in addressing accessibility concerns in recent telecommunications proceedings - as well as limited rollout for Video Relay Service and an absence of new services available in other jurisdictions.

It was also noted that Commission processes and procedures tend to be difficult to navigate and confusing for many people with disabilities. This needs to be rectified for the forthcoming public proceeding on accessibility.

The proceeding on accessibility should be designed in as accessible a fashion as possible, from timeframes for responding to the Public Notice, to building awareness about the process, to building infrastructure, to funding assistance for appearances at the Public Hearing.

The Commission should take particular care in ensuring that the hearing proceedings are broadly accessible to all consumers with disabilities, through the use of sign language interpretation, videoconferencing and real time audio closed captioning over the Internet. Funding for attendance at the hearing should be made available to intervenors by the Commission.

B - Persons with Disabilities in Canada

The most recently available data - for 2006 - indicate that 14.3 percent of the Canadian population reports having some type of disability, or approximately 4.4 million people.2

Between 2001 and 2006, the rate of disability for adults (aged 15 and older) increased from 14.6 percent to 16.5 percent.

However, the disability rate clearly increases with age: approximately 43 percent of Canadians age 65 and over have a disability, compared with people aged 15 to 64 (12.6 percent) and aged 0 to 14 (3.7 percent).

The rate of disability among the Canadian population is expected to increase dramatically over the next 10 to 15 years. Projections indicate that by 2026, seniors will comprise the largest population group with disabilities, at just over three million people.

Data on socio-economic characteristics of persons with disabilities in Canada is less recent, but nonetheless indicates that Canadians with disabilities have much greater tendencies towards unemployment, underemployment and low income. For example, based on 2001 data, the unemployment rate for persons with disabilities is five times that of people without disabilities.3

More recent data indicates that all forms of disability - with the exception of development disabilities - are increasing within the Canadian population. This is especially true of learning disabilities, which had a reported increase of 40 percent between 2001 and 2006 for adults aged 15 and older.4

The Role of Communications and Technology for Persons with Disabilities

Living with a disability is often about encountering barriers - to city infrastructure, transportation, education, employment, career success, good health. It is also about dealing with a consequent lack of inclusion in the activities of everyday life - and gaining access to those activities that people without disabilities take for granted.

There is a clear sense from the Canadian disability community that inclusion and social acceptance remain fundamental concerns - and that equal opportunity still eludes many people with a disability.

It is also clear that information is a critical priority for persons with disabilities, alongside other priorities such as access to transportation and accessible infrastructure such as buildings and sidewalks.

In short, accessible information - like accessible transportation and infrastructure - promotes independence, i.e. the ability to carry out tasks and activities with limited or no assistance, and - stated another way - reduces isolation for people with disabilities.

If information is the central priority for persons with disabilities, then the methods, products, and services that are required in order to access that information are also critical priorities. For persons with disabilities, whether blind, Deaf, cognitive, a wheelchair user or a combination of these, the ability to access telecommunications services, broadcast news, or a website for downloading content equates to breaking down barriers that otherwise deny their inclusion.

Given this, and given the deep experience of persons with disabilities with the use of assistive devices to facilitate accessibility, technology in general - but new technologies especially - hold a place of prominence in the disability community. However, as noted in our Report, the promise of technology is consistently thwarted by the absence of universal design in product and service development.

Simply put, universal design refers to a principle where the basic products, services or activities of a society are designed in a barrier-free way. Such designs - like curb cuts on sidewalks, kneeling buses, colour contrast dishware - tend to have much broader uses beyond those for persons with disabilities.

The principle of universal design as a core element of accessibility to telecommunications, broadcasting and new media was raised by every disability group interviewed during the consultation process.

As noted by one representative from a national disability group, 'We live in an information society, right? But somehow this does not include [persons with disabilities]. We're always catching up - mostly because products don't have universal design in mind when first made.'

However, as noted by many participants in the consultations, fundamental socio-economic barriers tend to inhibit access to communications services whether products and services are based on the principle of universal design or not: 'If you can't afford it, it's not accessible'.

C - Consultations with the Disability Community

As a starting point for summarizing consultations with the Canadian disability community, it should be noted almost all organizations contacted welcomed the opportunity to engage in a discussion about accessibility issues, and welcomed the prospect of a Public Hearing on accessibility going forward.

In fact, of 24 organizations contacted for consultation, only one refused. The other five did not respond or were no longer operating in the disability community.

Much of the discussion with 32 representatives from 18 disability organizations centered on accessibility to telecommunications products and services (especially cell phone products and services) as well as to the products and services of new media (especially wireless devices that have functionality for both telecom and Internet access).

As a secondary tier of discussion, participants had a number of comments about broadcasting distribution services and the transition to digital television, but less to say about issues such as closed captioning and descriptive video. Programming services received less attention, although presence and portrayal concerns persist.

In addition, participants made extensive comment about the Commission itself, including past approaches to addressing disability issues as well as the accessibility of the CRTC website and its public processes.

Finally, all groups provided comments and suggestions so far as the Public Hearing is concerned, including recommendations on the scope of proceedings and methods to ensure that the Hearing is as fully accessible as possible.

Telecommunications

At its most basic, participants in the Study noted that the evolution of digital technology should make any device or any service fully accessible. In the words of one participant in the Study, 'Technology can provide great liberation, or can promote huge barriers'. As noted by another, and echoed by many others, 'Technology is moving forward and the promise of accessibility is there for people with disabilities'.

This was clearly the view so far as telecommunications products and services are concerned: while technology has delivered a range of devices, services and options for most Canadians, the same technology has at the same time created new barriers.

A number of key issues emerged with respect to the accessibility of telecommunications for persons with disabilities:

  • Terminal equipment - generally referred to by participants as 'devices' - has become inadequate for serving the disability community; this is especially the case for cell phone products. As noted by one participant, 'When it comes to equipment, there is simply no universal design in play.'
  • Cell phone products and services have particular barriers, including affordability, design, and the lack of available customized service - or the tailoring of a device to meet the needs of a person with a disability.
  • Customer service in telecommunications (and many other sectors) is becoming increasingly automated and/or web-based, making it difficult for persons with disabilities to acquire assistance or advice when needed.
  • Deaf and hard of hearing Canadians expressed a particular range of accessibility issues, including the lack of certain advanced services in the Canadian market that are available in other jurisdictions.

Terminal Equipment

With respect to terminal equipment, there was an abundance of comment with particular emphasis on three key issues.

First, a number of participants indicated - quite strongly in some cases - that the general deregulation of terminal equipment has effectively enabled telecom carriers to abandon universal accessibility and has 'in effect lessened service - in much the same way as the deregulation of transportation has lessened service in that sector.'

Given deregulation of terminal equipment, participants noted that market forces and the pace of technology now dictate design and rollout with little or no regard for accessibility. As stated by one participant, 'It's not so much about the carriers, or even the network; it's more about the terminal equipment and a lack of regulation there'.

Second - and this was a comment made time and again by participants in the Study - the pace of technology development does not eliminate barriers for people with disabilities, but instead creates new ones. As noted by one participant, 'An improvement for them (a carrier) is a new hurdle for us.'

Third, and as an example of the above 'new hurdles', technology improvements such as network upgrades tend to render older terminal equipment (that may have been accessibility-friendly) inoperable. As a result, participants noted that people with disabilities need to replace their terminal equipment with other devices that simply fail to function as they need it to. For example, it may be incompatible with hearing aids, have keys or buttons that are too small or screens that are not readable.

Overall, participants conveyed a sense of 'being left behind' and marginalized as a result of technology improvements. While the able-bodied population can benefit from advancements in telecommunications technology, these same benefits are perceived as denied to persons with disabilities.

As a result, participants noted that persons with disabilities experience increased dependence on others for assistance with new equipment - the complete antithesis of the promise of new technology.

Cell Phones

The number of comments received from participants about cell phones warrants a separate discussion.

In short, cell phone technology is viewed as the new point of access to 'an amazing world - talking, the Internet, email, text messaging, social networks - but not for persons with disabilities.' Once again, participants referred to the benefits of cell phones for those without disabilities, but barriers for those with disabilities.

Disability organizations especially emphasized the importance of access to cell phone service for their constituents, not only as an important means of communication and access to information, but also for safety and security reasons, and as a 'lifeline for help if we need it'. Participants pointed out that this is particularly important given the health concerns that can often accompany a disability.

However, participants pointed to a number of barriers that persist with respect to the use of cell phones by people with disabilities.

The first of these is the affordability of products and service.

Most participants in the Study noted that cell phone service tends to be too expensive for many people with disabilities to easily afford - 'that a $50 per month charge might as well be $500. It's simply not affordable.' Much of this concern goes to the socio-economic pressures experienced by many in the disability community.

The second barrier noted by participants is the design of cell phone devices themselves.

Typical concerns revolve around the size of buttons on the face of devices, which can be very difficult to manipulate, and the inability to customize screen-based information in a manner that allows for conversion to text only. (As we note in the section of our Report on new media to follow, the colours and flash sequences that accompany screen-based information render it inaccessible for many people with disabilities.)

In short, 'small phones with small buttons do not allow for their independent use - and they're getting smaller, aren't they?'

The third barrier noted by a number of participants is a general lack of available customizing options for persons with disabilities.

For example, a number of participants indicated their efforts to have voice service removed from a selected cellular product - 'I can't hear or speak, so I don't need it.' Citing a similar example, another participant noted the increased costs involved in stripping voice from a selected cell phone: 'Why should I pay more for less? I don't need the voice component.'

In a similar vein, a number of participants noted the near-total absence of specialized packages for persons with disabilities, and the need to 'pay for features that you will never use' - 'I'm blind, I really don't need a camera'.

Moreover, there is a sense that service providers are unwilling to take on these types of initiatives in the absence of regulation - 'Can they do it? Yes, but it will take a new complaint process (guided by regulation)'.

The fourth barrier to accessible cell phone products and service is customer service and support. However, it is clear from the views expressed by participants that these issues transcend telecommunications to capture broadcasting and new media - as well as utilities, financial services and a host of other sectors identified by the disability community.

We therefore provide a separate treatment of barriers to customer services and billing enquiries below.

Customer Service and Support

A number of participants in the Study indicated that persons with disabilities regularly encounter insurmountable barriers to customer service and support. The result of these barriers is once again a lack of access enjoyed by the able-bodied, and a reduction in independent living on the part of persons with disabilities.

The most frequently mentioned issue was the lack of immediate access to live customer service representatives and increasing reliance on voice-activation/voice command and menu prompts. As noted by several participants, 'the incessant keying in of numbers' is 'confusing' and 'cannot be done without help'.

Once again, this was positioned by participants as an advancement in technology that 'makes things even more inaccessible'. Voice activation was noted as a major concern for individuals with sensory or cognitive disabilities, and for those with speech limitations, where additional time and/or live assistance is required in order to successfully navigate a customer service operation.

A number of participants also noted that telephone-based 1-800 customer service is slowly disappearing in favour of redirection to web-based customer services that pose significant barriers for persons with disabilities. As noted in our discussion of new media and accessibility below, websites that have not adapted W3C standards can prove difficult for many consumers with disabilities to access and/or navigate successfully.

In other words, participants noted that the replacement of 1-800 customer service with web-based customer service does not necessarily reduce barriers for persons with disabilities, but simply creates new ones.

In general, it can be concluded that the views of participants concerning issues with telecommunications accessibility tend to cite the absence of:

  • Regulatory oversight, resulting in the development of new barriers, especially with respect to terminal equipment.
  • Awareness about disability issues within individual carrier operations.
  • Champions for these issues, within individual companies.

We note that participants raised identical issues with respect to customer service in discussions on accessibility barriers in broadcasting and new media as well.

However, while references to carrier companies such as Bell, Telus, Rogers, Shaw, MTS, Aliant and others were quite common in nature - e.g. 'highly resistant to developing solutions' - SaskTel was identified by a number of participants as a 'leading light that gets it' so far as accessibility issues are concerned.

Telecommunications Issues Raised by Deaf/Hard of Hearing Groups

We note that the Canadian Deaf and hard of hearing community made extensive comment about telecommunications products and services, given the significant reliance of Deaf and hard of hearing consumers on various modes of telecom-based communication.

The Deaf and hard of hearing community in particular expressed frustration at the lack of progress made on introducing IP Relay Service and Video Relay Service (VRS) into the Canadian market, 'which have been in operation in the U.S. for years'. This is largely attributed to a lack of understanding about the benefits they can deliver and a parallel lack of regulatory will on the part of the Commission.

In addition, although TTYs (telephone/teletype machines) are now viewed as 'older technologies', they are still utilized by Deaf and hard of hearing consumers, especially older consumers - although a number of participants indicated that Relay Services provided by telecom carriers 'does not always work well with new terminal equipment'.

In addition, Deaf and hard of hearing participants noted a persistent lack of TTY availability within banks of pay telephones, despite a previous decision from the Commission that such units be installed by the carriers. While representatives of the Deaf community indicate they are working with carriers on a much preferred VRS (instead of TTY) solution for pay phones, participants indicate a lack of interest on the part of both carriers and the Commission to pursue this.

The Deaf and hard of hearing community also raised the outcome of the Commission's recent deferral account decision with respect to Video Relay Service - indicating that while the hearing population has access to service on a national basis, VRS will only roll out in four provinces. This is viewed as highly restrictive for Deaf and hard of hearing consumers.

As noted by one participant, a 'systematic, national approach is required' for VRS, given the 'amazing benefits will carry for not only the Deaf, but for lots of people from across Canada'.

Proposed Solutions

Although a number of accessibility issues were raised, solutions proposed by participants generally focused on (i) the need to increase regulatory oversight for telecommunications carriers, and (ii) the need to bring terminal equipment 'back into the regulatory fold' of the CRTC.

Two other solutions were raised on the terminal equipment side.

First, it was suggested that wireless carriers provide - likely on a regulated basis - a basic, universally designed device within their stable of products, 'that will not become obsolete with the next network upgrade'. This would address both affordability barriers for consumers with disabilities, and provide a basic accessible device for the market.

Second, it was suggested that telecom carriers build a universal design requirement into their procurement practices, in order to encourage the manufacturing sector to address the lack of accessibility to their devices. As noted by one participant, 'Carriers and manufacturers continually point the finger at one another - both need to be held accountable'.

As noted by several participants, however, 'The carriers have the market power; they can push the manufacturers. This can be leveraged through regulation'. This in turn led to suggestions that regulation may work better with 'a carrot than a stick, by providing incentives for carriers to procure accessible equipment'.

Participants in the Study noted the onus that needs to be placed on both carriers and the CRTC in order to bring forward appropriate regulation that will address accessibility issues. However, it was also noted that the pace of technology and increasing reliance on accessing the Internet for all types of consumer services (via wireless devices) will only accelerate, and thereby exacerbate barriers to accessibility.

It was also noted that accessibility is not a difficult thing to achieve, if the manufacturing sector would simply apply the principle of universal design.

Broadcasting

With respect to broadcasting, participants raised concerns a number of areas, all of which concerned television:

  • Access to quality closed captioning
  • Access to described video
  • The transition to HD television
  • Accessible service from distribution undertakings (i.e. cable and satellite television services)
  • Portrayal of persons with disabilities in television programming

Closed Captioning

Participants in the Study generally recognized or were aware that the Commission has recently released a new policy on closed captioning, (Broadcasting Public Notice 2007-54) and that broadcasters had developed working groups with the Deaf and hard of hearing community to primarily address outstanding issues of captioning quality.

However, a number of participants took the opportunity to identify persistent concerns with closed captioning.

In general, the quality of captioning was raised by a number of groups as 'very poor'. Captioning was noted for its missing information, and for the garbled results 'that are like throwing magnetic letters on a fridge'.

In addition to this, a number of participants pointed to the 'faulty regulation' that does not require captioning for television receivers with less than a 13-inch screen. 'What about new video screens on airplanes? What about screens in subway stations?'

Several participants noted that captions are not as useful for people with learning and/or cognitive disabilities, and that more 'plain language subtitling and voice over narration' would be more useful for these consumers.

Described Video

Described video services received more extensive comment from participants than did captioning, if for no other reason than participants' broad-based perspective that described video is so limited.5

Viewed as 'a great equalizer for people who are blind', participants noted that only 4 percent of programming is available in described video. For people with visual impairments, the very rapid use of graphics (e.g. in news and other programming) without any accompanying description renders the information inaccessible.

Participants also noted that captioning 'goes where description (of programming) does not', particularly with respect to (i) financial news reports during national news broadcasts and (ii) weather warnings that scroll across the screen with any accompanying audio. As noted by one representative of the disability community who is blind, 'When Mansbridge stops speaking and the music comes on, I know the financials are on-screen' - but without description, the information is not accessible.

It was also noted by participants that described video is more of a 'hidden issue' than captioning has been. This is primarily because described video largely benefits people who are blind or have other visual impairments - and some 65 percent of consumers who are blind are 'over the age of 65 - and not likely to complain'.

As a result, the perception among participants is that television distribution services will not carry described video services unless 'regulated to do so'. While there is an acknowledged need among participants that broadcasters need to produce more described video, the central barrier lies with the failure of distributors (primarily cable, less so for satellite) to carry it.

Two participants noted the need for research to identify what level of subscriber fees would be required to support more described video services, while two other participants noted that described video feeds from the U.S. are not - and should be - made available to Canadian subscribers.

Terminal Equipment and Transition to HD Television

Participants identified a major concern with the coming transition to digital television, and 'the new barriers that this (transition) may raise'. This is particularly the case for the development of both accessible programming and accessible terminal equipment, such as PVRs and HD television sets.

While some participants noted that some HD television channels do not provide captioning for programming , a number of other identified a series of problems with digital terminal equipment for television, including:

  • Lack of accessible PVR technology (and an inability of U.S. legislation to push for remedying this).
  • Visual menu-driven systems with no voice assistance that pose barriers for people with visual or cognitive disabilities ('You need to call for help with a screen-based system you can't see').
  • Difficulties in turning 'on' captioning in certain HD television receivers - noted by several respondents including those with advanced technical expertise.

With respect to barriers posed by digital terminal equipment, a number of participants likened this to new barriers posed by advances in telecommunications terminal equipment. As noted by one participant and echoed by a number of others - and applicable to telecommunications as well - 'These are end to end systems. You can't access the network if you don't have an accessible terminal device.'

There was also a sense conveyed by participants that, since these are end to end systems, the Commission should accept responsibility for regulating 'both ends'.

Cable and Satellite Distribution

A number of participants echoed comments similar to those about barriers to telecommunications products and services: affordability and very limited customer service.

While affordability of service as noted by several participants, there was more emphasis on barriers to customer service - again similar to those experienced on the telecommunications side. As noted by one participant, 'It's really tough to navigate the voice prompts for help - frankly, it diminishes my independence'.

This was especially noted as the case in rural areas, where satellite distribution is more common. Redirection to a website for assistance was expressed as becoming 'more common', and 'if (the websites) are not W3C accessible, we can't use it'. Several participants suggested that getting assistance from distributors is a problem 'for most of the population' and therefore much more daunting for someone with a disability.

Consumer groups representing Canadians who are blind or visually impaired noted that the lack of described narration for the on-screen television guides produced by distributors is a barrier that denies access to programming choice. It was also noted that service providers have expressed little interest in providing these types of services when requested to do so by the disability community.

Portrayal in Programming

A number of participants raised the issue of how persons with disabilities are represented and/or portrayed within television programming (with many recalling previous research on the subject that was undertaken by private broadcasters in 2005).6

A number of issues were raised:

  • The 'persistent portrayal of persons with disabilities by able-bodied actors'.
  • News reports that mythologize and victimize persons with disabilities (with reports of the Robert Latimer case specifically raised), and continuing insensitivity of news programming concerning disability issues.
  • Too few persons with disabilities occupying on-air roles, such as news readers and journalists.

One group of participants encouraged the development of 'more programming or a channel for persons with disabilities and disability issues' for Canada, similar to the BBC's See Hear magazine program.

New Media

With respect to issues concerning new media, it is not surprising that - given the importance of access to information and accessible technology for persons with disabilities - feedback was more wide-ranging.

Participants largely focused their perspectives about accessibility barriers to new media on:

  • The lack of universal design for wireless devices, and diminished accessibility to the content they can carry.
  • The lack of W3C standards applied to 'most websites', including those of telecom carriers, broadcasters, Internet Service Providers - and the Commission itself.
  • Lack of accessible programming content that is broadcast over the Internet.
  • Affordability of computers and/or Internet connections that inhibit access to new media.

Lack of Universal Design and Standards - Wireless Devices & Web Content

Participants consistently referred to the huge wave of content available on mobile, handheld devices - but given the lack of universal design, this content is largely inaccessible to persons with disabilities.

Participants noted that the lack of universal design applies equally to wireless devices and to the content they carry - i.e. a lack of applied standards 'equals more isolation for people with disabilities'. Devices themselves tend to have the same issues as cell phones (small buttons, software that is not needed) - and 'there are no best practice guidelines on how to design content for handsets'.

At the same time, participants noted that standards which would likely increase access to new media for persons with disabilities do not exist 'across the board: none for audio captioning, none for video captioning, none for news captioning - all this content, and its inaccessible'.

In addition, a number of groups called into question the ability to contact emergency services through wireless devices - noting that 'some countries have access to emergency email' - and that the interoperability of platforms needs to be examined with the needs of persons with disabilities in mind.

But the strongest comments from participants on the lack of universal design and standards for new media were focused on websites, and website content.

As noted by one participant and re-stated in similar ways by many others, 'It's all about flash and marketing, advertising banners and pizzazz. It's like there's a contest for who designs the fanciest website.'

Website content poses particular problems for consumers who are blind or have other visual disabilities that require the use of plain text and/or screen readers. As stated by one group, 'For people with disabilities, new media is revolutionary - it means huge access to information. But unless you can customize it, it's not accessible.'

This comment is very typical of perspectives from people who are blind, concerning access to content over the Internet: if banners cannot be removed, pictures cannot be removed, if voice cannot be applied, or if print cannot be enlarged while maintaining text on the screen - in other words, 'make it as visually unappealing as possible' - then it likely cannot be accessed.

In general, participants noted that the majority of website content cannot be customized by users, as described above - and audio features (which describe an element of a web page when rolled over) are virtually non-existent.

While participants noted these issues are simply generic, there was specific concern voiced about Government of Canada websites including the CRTC's, and their evident lack of W3C standards for accessibility.

As noted by one participant, 'Government websites often don't work with standard screen readers like JAWS (Job Access With Speech)'.

The broad perception of participants is that the technology to resolve accessibility to new media 'is essentially there', but webmasters and other designers are educated in other ways. 'It's like (designers) say, "Oh yeah, I remember learning about (W3C, plain text) at web design school." 'There's not a lot of knowledge out there about W3C standards'.

While participants recognized that the Commission may not be in a position to regulate this type of web-based content, participants strongly suggested that the Commission could assume 'a role of leadership and encouragement' to motivate standardized, accessible content.

Programming Broadcast over the Internet

As noted by one participant, 'Television and the Internet are converging, and more and more content is broadcast via the Internet that is likely inaccessible to persons with disabilities.'

Two issues of particular note were raised during consultations.

The first, and as noted above, was the concern expressed over the lack of standards developed for the captioning of audio and video programming broadcast over the Internet. Again, this was perceived as limiting access to content among persons with disabilities, particularly among the Deaf and hard of hearing consumers. Of particular concern was the absence of captioned news programming broadcast over the Internet, 'especially on the part of the CBC'.

The second issue, related to the above, was the notion that the lack of captioned content especially impacts Deaf youth - who are heavy users of new technologies, but perceive that they are denied access to the type of Internet-based broadcast programming that their hearing counterparts enjoy.

Affordability

The value of new media for access to information, education, public services and - consequently - for independent living was stated time and again by participants. However, it was also noted that there are economic realities to the world of new media that may render access to services and content 'unaffordable'.

Of primary concern was the inability of many persons with disabilities to afford a computer and an Internet connection for their home - 'the cost puts it out of reach for many'. While acknowledging the availability of Community Access sites in libraries and other facilities, participants noted that 'this means having to leave the house - and encounter transportation or physical barriers' as a result.

Consequently, the lack of access to computers for socio-economic reasons once again increases dependency on others. A number of participants suggested that a valuable focus of public policy would be to rectify this - e.g. 'If government can throw money at the Olympics, then government can help bring computers into the homes of people with disabilities'.

It was noted by several representatives of the Deaf and hard of hearing community that the excessive consumer cost of broadband inhibits the use of vlogging (i.e. video blogs, allowing communication via sign language rather than text) by Deaf consumers. Vlogs are especially popular among Deaf youth, but not widely utilized given the expense involved.

As stated by one participant, 'The cost of broadband does not permit me to communicate in my language'.

Comments Concerning the CRTC

Participants voiced a number of comments about the Commission's role and track record of response in addressing accessibility issues, well beyond a lack of W3C standards on the CRTC website.

We note from the outset that participants were very clear about their support for a Public Hearing to address unresolved issues concerning accessibility for persons with disabilities. Many participants applauded the Commission for taking this direction.

In addition, a number of participants noted that 'CRTC staff is always extremely helpful' when speaking to representatives from the disability community, and that the Commission had 'become much better at dealing with disability and accessibility issues'.

However, this was tempered with some concern about the manner in which the Commission has traditionally approached files that include disability-related issues, and the very reactive nature of the CRTC's 'attitude toward' disability issues more generally.

Most participants accentuated their comments about the Commission by noting in strong terms that 'social regulation is essential, because market forces will simply not accommodate calls for accessible service'. From the perspective of the disability community, regulation has become a fundamental necessity to ensure that persons with disabilities can access technology advancements in communication. As noted above, in the absence of regulation, 'carriers or service providers will not (deliver accessibility) on their own'.

But there was an equally strong sense conveyed by participants that the Commission 'is reactive, not proactive', and has provided little leadership on disability issues, instead acceding to market forces. This has culminated in a 'general failure to regulate' in favour of accessibility for people with disabilities.

Given this, participants argued that The Canadian Human Rights Act, the Telecommunications Act, the Broadcasting Act and the CRTC Act all provide sufficient grounds for the Commission to enforce regulation that ensures accessibility to communications products and services for persons with disabilities. Participants noted that in legal terms, 'inaccessibility equates with discrimination'.

Several participants commented that the Commission is lacking in two key areas of expertise that would bring accessibility issues more to the forefront: (i) expertise in human rights law and (ii) expertise in disability issues, achieved through the presence of senior staff with disabilities.

Another key area of discussion raised by participants was the perception that there are few opportunities to bring accessibility issues to the attention of the Commission.

One opportunity is presented at the time of licence renewals, but 'a seven-year term is simply too long' a cumulative period of time for addressing accessibility issues, given the rapid pace of technology advancement.

Other opportunities are presented by telecommunications proceedings that have a related accessibility component, whether proceedings on forbearance, VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), the CISC (CRTC Interconnection Steering Committee) process or the recent proceeding on the deferral account. Again, these were viewed by participants as lacking a global vision and piecemeal in nature.

Several groups also expressed serious dissatisfaction with the outcome of these proceedings, in terms of their success in addressing accessibility concerns. The VoIP and deferral account proceedings were specifically mentioned in this regard.

The length of time for proceedings was also the subject of comment, e.g. 'the deferral account (proceeding) started in 2006 and finished in 2008? That's too long.' The time and resources required for several rounds of intervention and reply in telecommunications proceedings was also noted as an inhibitor for the disability community - 'We lack the resources and many people with disabilities simply get tired out'.

A final opportunity of bringing accessibility issues to the Commission's attention was noted by participants as 'part of the complaints process', where a group representing consumers with disabilities or an individual with a disability brings an accessibility complaint forward to the Commission.

The complaints process was essentially dismissed out of hand by participants as largely ineffective, unwieldy to navigate, confusing for many people who have disabilities, and ultimately unlikely to achieve much in the way of results.

While proactive regulation supporting accessibility is the preferred solution voiced by most participants, many comments focused on the issue of leadership - and the ability of the Commission 'to influence the entire spectrum of communications, from network to terminal equipment'.

Several participants noted that the Commission needs to provide better access to its processes for persons with disabilities. There is a perception that the submission/intervention process has too many barriers, perhaps owing to 'no Commissioners with disabilities, and probably few if any senior staff (with disabilities)'.

Three participating groups also suggested that CRTC Commissioners themselves should tour the country to speak with Canadian with disabilities, as a way of becoming more knowledgeable about accessibility issues in general.

Finally, as suggested by one representative in the disability community and echoed by many others, the Commission should 'be as bold as you can be in demonstrating leadership' on accessibility issues going forward.

Comments on the Public Hearing

As noted above, the disability community was clear in its view that it 'welcomes a public process on accessibility issues'. Participants were also clear that they intend to take full advantage of the opportunity to 'make our voices heard' through both written submissions and attendance at the Hearing itself.

Most of the groups consulted for the Study indicated that they would almost certainly participate in the Hearing, through submissions, an appearance or both.

Not surprisingly, a Hearing about 'accessibility issues should be as accessible as possible' to all Canadians with disabilities, from the standpoints of both participation and observation.

To this end, participants had a number of suggestions, a range of advice and several recommendations for the manner in which the Commission should develop and manage the Public Hearing. Comments from participants generally focused on:

  • The importance of promoting the public proceeding to the disability community.
  • Timeframes for submissions and Hearing preparation.
  • Accessibility of the Public Hearing itself.

Promotion of the Proceeding to the Disability Community

In anticipating the release of a Public Notice announcing the public proceeding and its scope, a number of groups indicated that it will be essential to ensure that the proceeding is promoted to all Canadians with disabilities.

In part, broad promotion of the proceeding is essential so that participation will be as widely based as possible, and will not 'focus only on the major (disability) groups'. Many participants noted that less well resourced groups and individuals must be afforded an opportunity to participate as well.

This means in turn that participation in the proceeding would include people with all types of disability, including cognitive disability, deaf-blind, etc.

Many participants noted that they themselves will play an important role about the dissemination of information about the public proceeding on accessibility, through their networks, newsletters, website information and other available channels.

However, it was noted that the Commission 'should widely advertise the proceeding' and ensure that 'sufficient staff are dedicated' to assist consumers with disabilities with 'navigating the process'.

It was therefore suggested that the Public Notice be sent directly to all groups participating in the Study, as well as to the Canadian Abilities Foundation (which can then forward the Public Notice to an extensive disability community database).

The Public Notice and Timeframes for Participation

It was strongly suggested that the Public Notice be crafted in 'as plain language as possible' in order to ensure a wide range of 'contributions to the process - not just organizational input'.

It was suggested that the Commission keep the process 'as simple as possible', and ensure the acceptance of submissions to the proceeding in alternate format. The filing of electronic submissions should be as simple as possible.

Participants were also clear and adamant about the importance of ensuring sufficient time as a means of generating significant participation in the proceeding.

A number of groups noted that in the past, the Commission has 'previously provided inadequate timeframes for submission, reply and subsequent rounds of reply' (for telecommunications proceedings).

In terms of sufficient timeframes, a number of participants suggested that - for the purpose of compiling and filing submissions, a 30 to 60-day timeframe would be adequate. Under no circumstances should the timeframe for submissions be less than 30 days.

Participants were less precise in terms of the proceeding's scope, other than to suggest that it be as broad as possible in order to address barriers experienced by the disability community - and should 'most certainly include an examination of terminal equipment'.

Access to the Public Hearing

Recognizing that the Hearing will be held in a central location - in Gatineau, Québec - participants suggested a number of ways that the proceedings could be made as broadly accessible as possible.

  • The physical infrastructure of the building in which the Hearing is to be held should be fully accessible with respect to ramps, washrooms and other elements of infrastructure.
  • Proceedings should be available in English and American Sign Language (ASL); French and langue des signes québécoise (LSQ).
  • Proceedings should also be made available via videoconferencing facilities in CRTC Regional Offices across Canada, so that persons with disabilities can participate in the Hearing without having to travel to Gatineau.
  • The Commission should provide an audio stream of proceedings over the Internet, and should further provide real time closed captioning of the audio stream in both English and French.

While a televised broadcast feed of the hearing proceedings (e.g. through CPAC or other network facility) would be welcomed, participants - notably representatives of the Deaf/hard of hearing Community - were less concerned about this as an essential option if the other options are available.

However, if the hearing is televised it will be important to ensure that sign language interpreters are visible (on-screen) at all times.

As for the Hearing itself, many participants noted that people with disabilities appearing at the hearing can tire quite easily, and 'breaks - lots of them' are essential.

In addition, the schedule for the Hearing must be adhered to, to respect the needs of those who deal with significant complexity in arranging for travel, accommodation and actual, physical attendance at the proceeding.

In terms of timing for the Hearing itself, a number of participants noted that a major international conference on independent living is to be held in Ottawa in late November 2008. Participants viewed the potentially coincident timing of the Hearing with the international conference as positive.

It was also noted that the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities is observed on December 3 each year.

Funding for Intervenors

A number of groups in the disability community recommended that the Commission ensure the availability of funds as a means of ensuring broad participation in the Hearing.

It was also recommended that the Commission look seriously at a mechanism that would enable access to funds in advance of hearing appearances, in order to prevent disadvantaged groups and individuals from incurring out-of-pocket expenses, and potentially inhibiting participation.

Again, it was emphasized that access to any available funding should be administered in as simplified a fashion as possible.

Appendix - List of Organizations Consulted

Advocates for Sight Impaired Canadians
Rob Sleath

African‑Canadian Disability Community Association Inc.
Dr. Zaphania Matanga

Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians
John Rae, Richard Marion, Doreen Demas, Ross Eadie and Mike Yale

ARCH
Ivana Petricone, Lana Kerzner, Monica Ackermann, Marcia Cummings and Thomas Rajan

Association du Québec pour enfants avec problèmes auditifs :
Jacques Racicot

Canadian Association of the Deaf/Association des sourds du Canada
Jim Roots and Evelyne Gounetenzi

Canadian Association of Independent Living Centres
Kier Martin

Canadian Hearing Society
Gary Malkowski, Jim Hardman and Joanne Bentley

Canadian Paraplegic Association
David Hinton

Centre québécois de la déficience auditive 
Gilles Boucher, Chantal Giroux, Jacques Racicot

CNIB
Cathy Moore

Confédération des personnes handicapées du Québec 
Chloé Serradori

Council of Canadians with Disabilities
Laurie Beachell

Institut Raymond Dewar
Michel Simard, Johannie Fex

National Educational Association of Disabled Students
Frank Smith

Neil Squire Society
Dr. Gary Birch

People First
Shelley Rattai and Paul Young

Regroupement des aveugles et ambylopes du Québec
Florence Pardo

Research Team

Richard Cavanagh served as Senior Consultant to the Study and authored the Report. Mr. Cavanagh has over 20 years experience in the field of communications research, and 15 years experience in studying issues concerning persons with disabilities and the communications sectors. Mr. Cavanagh led a 2005 study on The Presence, Portrayal and Participation of Persons with Disabilities in Television Programming and has conducted additional research for Canadian broadcasters on the use of respectful language when referencing persons with disabilities.

Mr. Cavanagh holds an M.A. in sociology from Queen's University, and a Ph.D in Social Sciences from Carleton University.

Sylvie Croteau served as Project Interviewer for the Study. Ms. Croteau is Vice‑president with Ad Hoc Research in Montréal, and has considerable expertise in researching communications issues. An expert in qualitative research design and analysis, Ms. Croteau most recently worked with CONNECTUS on a major project examining the economics of culture for Canadian Heritage, and is currently working on a project concerning telecommunications and the Québec‑based disability community.

Perfectly bilingual, Ms. Croteau holds an M.Sc. in Communications from and a B.Sc. in Liberal Arts, both from the Université de Montréal.

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Footnotes:

1 The word 'Deaf' is spelled with a capital 'D' throughout this Report. In general, a capital 'D' is used to designate people who are culturally deaf and the community of people who are deaf‑educated, use sign language, etc. A small case 'd' is used to describe hearing loss only.

2 Figures from Statistics Canada, Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (PALS) 2006, released December 3, 2007, Table 1.1‑1: Weblink

3 PALS, 2001, Education, employment and income of adults with and without disabilities, Tables 3 and 4: Weblink

4 Statistics Canada, The Daily December 3, 2007: Weblink

5 It should be noted that participants in the Study did not distinguish between 'described video' and 'audio description' in their comments during one‑on‑one interviews.

6 See The Presence, Portrayal and Participation of Persons with Disabilities in Television Programming, Study undertaken by CONNECTUS Consulting Inc. for the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, 2005 Weblink