Bill C-81: A Paper Tiger or Real Change? For Your Business it Doesn’t Matter

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It’s hard to criticize “progress,” but when progress comes with quotes around it, sometimes the perception of moving forward can be more detrimental to the cause than inertia. After all, if we believe progress is being made, there’s less motivation to rally the cause and to affect positive change. 

That’s kind of where I stand on the much-ballyhooed Bill C-81 -- the Accessible Canada Act. From an optics point of view, it seems great! After all, who doesn’t like saying we’re going to make a more accessible Canada. But saying it and doing it are two different things -- and while the federal government may be ready to roar about its accomplishments, my concern is that Bill C-81, as currently constituted, is at risk of being nothing more than a paper tiger. 

Bill C-81 received Royal Assent on June 21st.  

Fortunately (but rather late in the game) they added a deadline to the Act, in that it now reads “The purpose of this Act is to benefit all persons, especially persons with disabilities, through the realization, within the purview of matters coming with the legislative authority of Parliament, of a Canada without barriers , on or before January 1, 2040…”

Optical Opportunity Lost

From a content perspective, I’m going to suggest that the way the Act is written contravenes best practices with accessibility. It is unnecessarily clunky and filled with parliamentary jargon -- it’s challenging to read, which goes against the concept of universal accessibility.

Remember, accessibility is not just about canes and wheelchairs. It’s about cognitive disabilities; it’s about providing a better experience for all -- including those for whom English or French isn’t a primary language. Government loves optics and this would have been an easy win for all. The fact that the language defaults to the traditional, convoluted patterns suggests that accessibility wasn’t at the fore of the writing.

We see organizations like national medical and legal organizations on both sides of the border embracing Plain Language principles. This would have been a great start.

A Start, But Not Clear Steps

Unlike the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, which has clear, actionable steps and requirements for organizations, the ACA is still in the process of defining those -- and that starts with creation of a committee -- the Canadian Accessibility Standards Development Organization -- intended to define those standards.

So I’ll reserve judgement until I see what comes out of that.

There are a few early measurables that offer promise. All regulated entities (generally federal government and federally regulated organizations) must develop accessibility plans that have to be publicly published; they have to create feedback mechanisms in order to receive and respond to employee and customer statements; and they need to prepare and publish progress reports detailing how they’re fulfilling the aforementioned accessibility plans.

There’s a Bark, but Will There Be a Bite?

One of the biggest criticisms with AODA is that for all its bluster about fines and penalties, there’s been very little done in terms of enforcement. Some of that is simply because there’s been little internal resourcing dedicated to this. So while the AODA language is tough -- and 2021 is coming awfully fast -- the dirty little secret is that for all the gnashing of teeth and snarling language, there’s very little risk of being bitten.

ACA seems to be hoping for the more is more strategy, in that enforcement is spread across four federal agencies. But that, in itself, may be a barrier towards both access (which agency do I go to?) and timely resolution of issues (will complaints and enforcement get caught up in red tape?)

There are fines, but, again, without a commitment to enforcement, it’s an empty threat.

Even in its implementation, the Act affords the government the powers to promote accessibility and to create standards, but doesn’t require that they be used. It’s a matter of semantics, I suppose, but semantics matter in government.

Finally, there are so many opportunities for exemptions that it undermines the concept of universal accessibility. It should only be in very rare cases where accessibility is an “option” -- and that’s not the case here.

What About the Web?

I know why you’re here… what’s in it for me? What do I need to do?

Well, the Act does reference technological barriers, but with no standards in place, it’s only speculative. One would assume that it will align with WCAG 2.0 or 2.1 AA compliance -- much like AODA and the U.S.’s Section 508. But from there? Who knows?

If you are a government agency or federally regulated, the best bet would be the follow accessibility best practices now, as it’s a safe bet that you’re going to have to in the future. And it’s better to create a foundation for content creation today, as opposed to having to do a tremendous amount of rework in the future.

With AODA, there was a grandfather clause, in that content from before 2012 could remain inaccessible, but any content created after that date (depending upon the type of organization) was required to be accessible. One would expect a similar grandfather clause, but if your content is going to be required to be archived online for access in the future, it’s worthwhile to audit it now to see what needs to be done. It’s far easier to manage content on the fly than to put off a massive rework to the future when you may be facing a deadline.

But even if you’re not federally regulated, you’re likely to be impacted. Both Manitoba and Nova Scotia have accessibility acts in place. B.C. is in the midst of an aggressive accessibility campaign that’s aligning with its Accessibility 2024 vision, wherein they want to make “... B.C. the most progressive province in Canada for people with disabilities by 2024.”

And once that accessibility ball gets rolling, other provinces and territories will likely jump on the bandwagon, essentially copying the work other provinces have done.

Accessibility When?

Ultimately, the decision is yours. And, hopefully, it’s not going to be one that’s based on a mandate, but rather one that focuses on the positive aspects of accessible web design (and, by extension, a corporate-wide focus on accessibility).

Whether through my work or through my involvement with accessibility organizations and committees at the municipal and provincial level, you’ll never hear me utter the word “should.” Obviously, creating an accessible world is a positive for all -- it says a lot about the community we create and whom we want to welcome into it to fully participate.

However, that message often falls on deaf ears when it comes to business investment. Instead, I encourage you to look at the hard-and-fast benefits of accessible design. A commitment to accessibility: 

  • Aligns with mobile development principles and best practices
  • Aligns with search engine optimization benefits
  • Improves your search results and findability of content (we like to say Google is the ultimate accessible user)
  • Improves your content messaging, creating more clear and intuitive messages and pathways
  • Improves content access for those for whom English (or French) isn’t their primary language -- increasingly important in our multicultural society
  • Benefits all of your users -- accessibility isn’t just about visible or non-visible disabilities, but also benefits an ageing population, reduces linguistic barriers, and increases comprehension across the board.

So accessibility when? How about now? The benefits are clear -- whether or not you’re worried about being mandated to do it.


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