For public servants with disabilities, some tools of the trade out of reach
'If they can’t use that software, they really can’t do their jobs'
Thousands of federal public servants across Canada are unable to utilize internal government software programs and websites because they're inaccessible to people with a range of disabilities.
The problem has led to job losses, grievances, a human rights complaint and, as one lawyer suggests, opens the door to a potential court challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Abigail Shorter has a masters degree in public administration and 14 years of experience inside the federal government, but when her position was declared surplus a couple years ago, she found her inability to use certain computer programs left her out of the running for another public service job.
"I found myself less and less marketable and my time ran out and I lost my job," said Shorter, who has a learning disability and difficulties using a computer and mouse.
"I'm not the only one that's happened to."
Other government workers with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, cognitive issues or impaired vision face similar barriers when it comes to using some government applications.
The mouse trap
Internal programs such as GC Docs, GC Connex and Phoenix pose problems for some employees, particularly if they're unable to use a mouse.
Their work suffers and they're treated as if they're not capable. They're perfectly capable, they simply are denied the means of doing it.- David Baker, lawyer
While some managers find ways to accommodate workers with disabilities, Shorter's lawyer, David Baker, said the fixes don't always work for everyone.
"If they can't use that software, they really can't do their jobs," said Baker. "As a consequence, their work suffers and they're treated as if they're not capable. They're perfectly capable, they simply are denied the means of doing it."
Shorter took her case to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and after a lengthy investigation it was referred to a tribunal, which will hear it this summer.
Potential charter case
"New software is being put in place as we speak that's not accessible. It contravenes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Human Rights Code and the policies I have seen requiring accessibility be part of the tendering process," said Baker, who's preparing a charter challenge.
In 2010, Baker represented a blind woman, Donna Jodhan, who sued because she was unable to use the federal government's websites to apply online for public service jobs.
Jodhan's win in federal court forced the government to make its websites accessible to visually impaired users, but the case didn't force the government to make internal changes.
In a small office in a government building in Gatineau, Jeffrey Stark sits surrounded by braille keyboards, special screens and document readers.
Stark, who is blind, manages Shared Services Canada's Accessibility Accommodation and Adaptive Computer Technology Program, set up to help public servants like him.
"I'm in both categories, someone who delivers service to people with disabilities, and I'm also someone who needs services," said Stark.
Stark and his colleagues hold regular training seminars to help hundreds of public servants each year figure out what tools they need to do their jobs.
"In terms of workarounds, that's where our organization really shines," Stark said.
Working toward solution, minister says
But some believe the government shouldn't be in the business of workarounds, but should ensure their internal programs are fully accessible from the moment they're launched.
"The solution is, try to have government look at their procurement process and ask for technology that has an accessible user interface," said Mike Gifford, president of OpenConcept Consulting.
"That is a terribly inefficient and very expensive way to go off and deal with a technology challenge," said Gifford, who believes procurement officers need training so they understand what to ask for when tendering contracts for administrative software and website development.
In a statement, Canada's Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities Carla Qualtrough — a human rights lawyer and Paralympian who is herself visually impaired — said her department is aware of the issue.
But for Abigail Shorter, those changes come too late.
"I've lost a home, I've left a career of 14 years with the federal public service. I don't believe that should be an imposition made by a lack of accessibility," she said.