Ottawa

Public servants with visual impairments say government failing them

People with visual impairments say the federal government is failing when it comes to making sure they have the proper tools to do their jobs. Some are seeking legal advice for what they call a clear violation of their charter and human rights. They say internal websites are not fully accessible to them.

Federal government could face legal battle over inaccessible, internal websites says Toronto lawyer

Former federal government electrician Dan Mooney said the computer he was using at his desk job was constantly failing. "It was not unusual to go a month, month and a half without a properly working computer." (Courtesy Dan Mooney)

Public servants who are blind or have visual impairments say the federal government is failing them when it comes to making sure they have the proper tools to do their jobs.

CBC News has spoken with public servants who are seeking legal advice for what they call a clear violation of their charter and human rights. While the employees did not want to speak publicly about their complaints, lawyer David Baker is voicing their concerns.

Baker, a Toronto lawyer, says the people he's spoken with aren't being accommodated with the kinds of adaptive computer technology they need to do meaningful work.

"There have been successive internal reports telling the government that accessible software is available, should be implemented, can be implemented, and as Canada's largest employer, one would expect it would be, yet year after year, it's not," Baker said.

According to Treasury Board policy, the government has a "duty to accommodate persons with disabilities in the federal public service."

'The technology I had was constantly failing'

Dan Mooney isn't one of the public servants who has consulted with Baker, but the former federal government electrician says he relates to their concerns.

Mooney was initially hired by the Department of National Defence decades ago to work on ships on base at Esquimalt, B.C.

When he lost his sight through macular degeneration, he could no longer do work in the shop and he took on a desk job, but he says at times, that work has been impossible.

Lawyer David Baker says the federal government should be leading the way on accessibility, not lagging behind. (Baker Law)
"Much of the software being developed now and used by the federal government is almost entirely visually cued. You have fields, flash, you work in large spreadsheets," said Mooney, who is currently off work on long-term disability due to depression.

"The technology I had was constantly failing on an ongoing basis. I'd wait until IT had time to fix it. Many times they had no idea what to do about the problem. So I'd wait and I'd wait. It was not unusual to go a month, month and a half without a properly working computer."

Blind woman sued in 2010

Baker has heard similar stories and he's challenged the federal government in the past on behalf of the visually impaired.

In November 2010, Baker represented a blind woman in Toronto who sued because she was unable to use government websites to apply online for public service jobs.

Donna Jodhan, a special needs consultant with certified skills and a master's degree won her case.  A Federal Court judge gave the government 15 months to make its websites accessible to visually impaired users, which it did.

In a statement, the Treasury Board Secretariat confirms in 2011 it introduced a new Standard on Web Accessibility that "reflects the government's longstanding commitment to web accessibility for the visually impaired."

Website accessibility rules don't apply internally

But the department also notes: "The Standard on Web Accessibility does not apply to internal facing websites."

Several public servants complain that internal websites and software are not accessible to people with visual impairments. Baker says this is unacceptable.

"The federal government, the body that should be taking the lead and they're not running with this thing as one would expect they would be, particularly since their own reports are saying this can and should be done," Baker said.

But there are some federal departments and agencies that are more accommodating than others. One example is the Canada Revenue Agency which has an adaptive technology program that caters to applicants and employees with visual impairments.

"I'm blind myself," said Robin East, the support analyst for CRA's national program in Saskatoon. He helps people get the adaptive software and hardware they need. He spoke to CBC from the perspective of a person with a disability, rather than a department representative.

"We make sure they have the tools and make sure they're trained on the tools themselves so that they can function at the job at the level they're hired to do."

But East says it's well recognized across the federal government that the internal websites are not working for those without sight.

"The government isn't putting the money to it," said East. "Treasury Board is ultimately responsible for either internal or external sites. That's where the buck stops."

About the Author

Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is a senior reporter who works on investigations and enterprise news features at CBC Ottawa. She's also the host of the new CBC investigative podcast, The Band Played On. You can reach her at julie.ireton@cbc.ca

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