Accessibility is About Independence, Not Dependence on Others
While it is unfortunate enough when a process is inaccessible, it is far more frustrating when those in charge of the process expect users with disabilities to always have someone on hand to help them rather than providing assistance themselves.
News reports about Canada’s passport-issuing agency provided an example of this. Not only does obtaining or renewing a passport present challenges for Canadians with disabilities, this agency's process is dependent on disabled users providing their own assistants. Neither of these conclusions are comforting.
Recently, the news that a gentleman with cerebral palsy and a blind woman were each unable to receive assistance from Passport Canada officials in completing their forms made headlines. Both have difficulty with handwriting, and the customer with a visual impairment was not able to read the print form. The office was also out of Braille copies.
Neither office (or any office I am aware of) possesses an electronic terminal which would allow users to complete their application electronically with any adaptive technology they might require. This would not have solved the issue of signing each page independently though.
In the case of the blind customer, assistance would have been required to indicate where and how big the space for a signature was, and an alternate arrangement would have needed to be made for the individual with limited manual dexterity.
Upon hearing these stories, I wondered, uncharitably, why these individuals wouldn’t have completed their forms online. Any I have found are accessible or have accessible alternatives. But even if these individuals had a computer, the know-how, the necessary adaptive hardware and software, Adobe Acrobat, and an Internet connection to download the forms, they still could not have completed them fully without help, owing to the need for their signature.
And even if they had none of those things and arrived empty-handed, able-bodied individuals could complete any paperwork in person; those with disabilities should have those same rights, particularly as obtaining a passport is a public service.
Providing such assistance is against Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada policy over fears of forgery allegations. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has stated it's looking into the policy. The department's recommendation is for individuals requiring assistance to have a friend or family member assist them in completing any forms. From my experience recently in renewing my own passport, this appears to extend to providing basic guiding while in the passport office as well.
This makes the gross assumption that individuals with disabilities have people in their lives that are available to assist them for such purposes. Many do not: loved ones might not be in town or may not be sufficiently able-bodied themselves to provide the necessary help. Though forgery concerns are valid, there must be a way, through notarization or a similar process for employees, to ensure that those arriving requiring assistance with paperwork be provided that aid.
Beyond paperwork, the office I visited this week had several other inaccessible features. Patrons were required to go across a large room (through a series of gates too narrow for a scooter or wheelchair) to a counter with a printed number, to receive another printed number which gave users the order in which they would be served. Each number flashed quickly across a screen, giving users directions to the counter they were meant to use. For me, this would have been impossible without some form of assistance. Anyone with a mobility aid would also have faced difficulties.
Though every individual employee I spoke to was friendly, I am not certain how much assistance they could provide me had I come alone. Fortunately for me, I have now moved back to a city with family nearby to help in such circumstances, but had I been away at school, I would not have been so lucky.
Creating accessible options is the best-case scenario. When circumstances (such as requiring a signature or having an office set-up that is as accessible as it can be but still remains inadequate) arise, it can’t always fall to the person requiring assistance to provide their own support. Certainly every effort should be made on their part, but if they don’t have the luxury of technological or human assistance, they should be able to gain access to public services as any other citizen.