09/05/2012 04:33 EDT | Updated 11/05/2012 05:12 EST

Advocate says government has improved websites accessibility for the blind

TORONTO - A blind activist who spent years battling the federal government in court over website accessibility for the visually impaired believes her long-fought legal victory should be the first step of a national crusade.

Donna Jodhan said a court ruling compelling the federal government to ensure its web-based material is accessible to blind users relying on screen-reading technology is an important victory, but argues other public and private sector organizations should heed the lessons raised by her case.

Jodhan announced on Wednesday that the drawn-out battle that pitted her against the office of the Attorney General of Canada has come to a close after more than three years of legal wrangling.

Both parties have agreed not to challenge a Federal Court of Appeal decision which upheld a ruling from November 2010.

In that ruling, justice Michael Kelen said that the content of federal government websites needed to be fully accessible to visually impaired users. The ruling also compelled the government to stay abreast of changing accessibility standards and ensure its web content was updated to keep pace with modern assistive technology.

Jodhan, a special-needs business consultant from Toronto, acknowledged the ruling was a landmark victory for the blind community, but said she hoped it was the first of many efforts to make the web universally accessible.

"We are reasonably satisfied with how things stand, but more progress is needed," Jodhan said in a telephone interview. "You know that technology is going to keep moving forward, you know that the Internet is going to keep growing, and you also know that as a blind person that it is not enough to say, 'ok, positive progress has been made.' This has to continue."

Jodhan said she first became aware of accessibility shortcomings nearly a decade ago when she tried to apply for a job through the federal government website.

The design of the application form effectively made it illegible to her screen reader, she said. Fields were either mislabelled or not identified at all, pull-down menus kept her from viewing all the options, and information documents were posted to the site in a format that couldn't be read by her access technology.

Complaints to the government hotline went unheeded, Jodhan said, adding most customer service representatives had no idea how to respond to her concerns.

The issue re-emerged in 2006 when Jodhan said she was unable to fill in the online census questionnaire without help from a sighted friend.

It was then that she decided to take action by mounting a challenge accusing the government of violating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"I personally felt the government just had no concept of why it was important for me to have my information in a readable format," she said. "It's independence and confidentiality that you're taking away from me."

Jodhan secured funding through the now-cancelled Court Challenges program, which provided financial backing for court cases that advanced language and equality rights.

The government argued that Jodhan's rights were not being violated, since all information available online could also be obtained through alternate channels such as the phone or local offices.

Those arguments were rejected in Kelen's 2009 ruling, prompting the government to send the case to the Federal Court of Appeal.

A three-judge panel unanimously upheld Kelen's decision last May, saying it agreed with Jodhan's argument that "forcing her to rely on sighted assistance is demeaning and propagates the point of view that (people with vision disabilities) are less capable and less worthy.''

The government opted not to appeal the higher court decision, but Jodhan said she still found herself with a dilemma.

The 2009 ruling had given Ottawa 15 months in which to make its websites comply with accessibility standards, but Jodhan said she had no way to ensure those updates had been made.

She commissioned the Canadian National Institute for the Blind to conduct an independent audit of federal sites before deciding whether to bring further legal action.

The CNIB identified just 16 accessibility issues across 946 web pages, giving the government an error rate of 1.6 per cent and suggesting its Internet presence was very much in line with international web accessibility standards.

Those results were enough for Jodhan.

"We decided it would be in the best interests of the blind community to move forward and allow this government to continue its positive progress," she said.

A spokeswoman for Justice Canada confirmed Wednesday that the federal government would not be appealing the court decision.

"The government of Canada has opted not to seek leave to appeal in this matter. This decision has been communicated to Ms Jodhan’s counsel," said Carole Saindon.

Human rights lawyer David Baker, who shepherded Jodhan's case through the courts, said the positive outcome sets an important precedent for Canada's public and private sector alike.

Federally regulated organizations such as banks, as well as private companies and lower orders of government, would be well-advised to keep accessibility on their radar as they develop their web presences, he said.

"It should be something that people are paying attention to."