Submission on Canada’s Consultation on Federal Accessibility LegislationFebruary 2016
The Canadian Library Community welcomes the opportunity to respond to the consultation on federal accessibility legislation. In Canada, people have access to publicly funded library services at public, school and academic libraries. Libraries support life-long learning, community development, academic achievement, civic participation, and numerous government services. Libraries are generally within municipal and provincial jurisdiction, but are impacted in some areas by federal legislation. The library sector strongly supports legislation that will result in the removal of any type of barrier for persons with disabilities.
For the purposes of this consultation, we are providing input on legislation that can support the provision of accessible library services and equitable access to information for people who have a disability.
Specifically, we welcome legislation that would (this needs some work):
- increase the amount of materials in accessible formats and mandate federal support for production of materials
- Ensure that publishers of ebooks and other digital resources (including government resources) adopt the principals of Inclusive Publishing, wherein all content is produced in an accessible format at source.
- Ensure devices used to access information and to communicate are accessible
Federal accessibility legislation will be the latest in a series of ‘firsts’ that proactively support people with disabilities living in Canada. The proposed legislation not only has the potential to demonstrate greater support for their personal well-being and development, but also to create far more opportunity for the 14 per cent of Canadians living with a disability to fully take part in society. Beyond the benefits to Canadian individuals with disabilities, any effort to improve accessibility and further empower this important group will have substantial benefits for all Canadians through increased inclusion and productivity.
Canada’s library community recognizes that access—to knowledge, information, services and culture— lies at the core of their mission. In 1993, a national forum was held that outlined the need for library guidelines for serving people with disabilities. As a result, CFLA-FCAB’s Canadian Guidelines on Library and Information Services for People with Disabilities were drafted. As recognized by the World Health Organization, these guidelines also acknowledge that the number of people with disabilities is increasing due to population growth, medical advances and the aging process and that the prevalence of disability increases steadily with age. This document was most recently updated in 2016.
The purpose of this consultation is to create accessibility legislation that promotes equal opportunity and increases inclusion and participation of Canadians who have disabilities or functional limitations. Our community supports this goal unreservedly. This submission aims to highlight the ways in which libraries can serve as a positive example while continuing to show leadership on accessibility issues within the context of federal legislation.
The value of federal legislation: systemic consequences
Though library systems like Libraries and Archives Canada, the Library of Parliament and libraries in federal correctional institutions will likely be impacted by federal accessibility legislation, a large number may not be required to make changes to their facilities or practices. However, the importance of federal leadership on accessibility issues is paramount.
The consultation rightly describes a situation whereby “Canada’s current legal approach to disability is focused on protecting the human rights of Canadians with disabilities and relies on individual complaints to address what can be larger, systemic issues.” As long-time leaders in accessibility, libraries have faced the persistent challenge of prioritizing accommodation from a starting point. Conversely, governments, industries and community groups have often dealt with accessibility issues from a reactive position rather than as an operational principle. Libraries have responded accordingly when regulations have been adopted by provinces and local authorities and appreciate that these legislative steps are progress toward solving the systemic challenges that face Canadians with disabilities.
The Guidelines on Library and Information Services for People with Disabilities (The Guidelines) explain how libraries can provide environments and services that are universally designed through a community-led approach to policy and planning. When the federal government adopts accessibility legislation, society will respond and it will be easier both operationally and – ideally – financially for libraries to achieve this goal. The Guidelines offer a model for libraries as public institutions that could translate well to the federal public service with the goal of creating a universally designed environment.
The goal of the legislation
The goal of federal accessibility legislation is well described by the consultation document. Removing barriers is a crucial step and a fantastic example of this is Canada’s accession to the Marrakesh Treaty. Our country became the twentieth nation to accede to the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Work for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled. The treaty was brought into force in Canada on September 30, 2016. This measure represents a well-intentioned removal of a barrier, but it also demonstrates the need for additional support. While some funds have been made available to create alternate format published materials for the 3 million Canadians who are print disabled, many institutions face financial limitations in pursuit of this goal. The objective of the treaty and this legislation advances equity of access and places Canada in a lead position worldwide.
A prescriptive approach or outcome-based approach? Who should be covered?
Even a thorough prescriptive approach to legislation should be based on reaching targeted and achievable outcomes. For instance, the government should be authorized by this legislation to take steps to develop accessibility standards as a proactive measure. However, this should be done in consultation with organizations that assist government in developing, publishing, implementing specific goals, commitments and strategies. The status quo of protecting rights through an individualized, complaint-based process puts the onus for action on people who have already faced a real or perceived barrier to full participation in an activity or interaction with a product or process. Accessibility legislation should shift some of this responsibility toward institutions to support the idea of accessibility as a foundational principle that promotes interaction and inclusion rather than as a necessary, but inconvenient consideration for businesses, institutions and private citizens.
As described in the consultation document, an outcome-based approach may better serve to showcase accessibility considerations as an important opportunity for Canadians from all backgrounds to live in a society that functions better by including everyone. Where the federal government has a greater level of control, within federal government branches or programs for instance, a more prescriptive approach that reflects objectives similar to The Guidelines would be more appropriate.
Similarly, where the federal government has jurisdiction, a more prescriptive approach is appropriate. Canadians with disabilities regularly interact with federal institutions, including those outlined in the consultation document. A prescriptive approach that serves to improve their ease of interaction with Members of Parliament, departments and agencies of the federal government, crown corporations, courts and the RCMP will also serve to improve interactions with the Library of Parliament, for example.
Beyond the institutions described, it would be valuable to ensure that data sources and reports created by federal departments and other federally regulated bodies are made available in formats compliant with the NOSO standard for accessibility. This will have a positive effect on libraries and other institutions that seek to improve Canadians’ access to data. It will also make it easier for students, instructors, researchers and professionals with perceptual disabilities to interact with these publicly- funded resources.
What issues and barriers should the legislation address?
The legislation should take meaningful steps to ensure that the millions of Canadians living with disabilities encounter as few barriers as possible. This is an ambitious, but attainable goal. For libraries, it is important to use the needs of the community as a starting point when understanding what barriers need to be addressed in the immediate to near-term. It is difficult to prioritize the importance of removing barriers in each of the six listed areas as all will be of differing significance for the people encountering those barriers.
It is crucial to recognize that beyond the specific area barriers outlined in the consultation document, systemic barriers persist, including negative attitudes toward people with disabilities. This legislation should create opportunities or incentives for institutions to challenge the systemic presumptions about people with disabilities. Libraries are places where Canadians can be educated about the implications of accessibility legislation and about how more inclusive policies and programs can create opportunities for the public at large.
We agree that the legislation should create a mechanism whereby accessibility can be regularly examined, discussed and supported. An advisory council would create institutional memory and the secretariat would play a convening role for concerned groups to routinely discuss developing accessibility issues and solutions. Such a council would also be better equipped to present reports and recommendations that would inform government policy on a less ad hoc basis than periodic consultations as described in this consultation document.
Federal accessibility legislation must be comprehensive. As such, the legislation should not attempt only to create laws or regulations where there is no existing or federal law, but to address the concerns of Canadians with disabilities fulsomely. The new federal legislation should be modeled on existing provincial or territorial legislation, which includes acknowledging shortcomings of legislation in those jurisdictions that can be ameliorated with new federal legislation. The Government should also seek to include the best components of existing legislation in other jurisdictions into the federal law.
How should compliance with the legislation be monitored and enforced?
Compliance monitoring and enforcement will ultimately depend on the approach of the final legislation. Under a prescriptive or outcome-based model, there is no reason to preclude action plans or progress reports. It is necessary that if these mechanisms are used, they serve not only as notice to the public, but that they contain a plan or roadmap for addressing issues that are raised by the mechanism of assessment that is used.
Where a finding of non-compliance is made, a measure of degree should be considered for enforcement, particularly where efforts are underway to correct the infraction. For instance, were a library to be made aware of a complaint or a finding of non-compliance, a grace period to correct the problem before being publicly reported or penalized is recommended. Additional penalties would remain as options for entities that are non-compliant and resist making necessary changes. In such a system, a formal mediation or adjudication process would need to be established for groups that wished to argue against complaints that had been made against them. Increasing public awareness about requirements under the new legislation and proactive encouragement of compliance will be needed to reduce the pressure on the complaint system.
How should organizations be supported to improve accessibility?
Accessibility legislation should be designed to support groups that have made significant progress in creating opportunities for Canadians with disabilities while making it as easy as possible for institutions, businesses and groups to take steps toward improving accessibility outcomes. All of the measures outlined for encouragement, support and recognition will create incentives that results in the removal of barriers. For institutions like libraries that face pressure to increase service and product offerings with limited budgets, monetary incentives would be appreciated. However, the focus for funding support should be through a robust grant program to eliminate specific barriers rather than public rewards for a job well done.
The idea of financial support for conducting and sharing research and best practices is also appealing, but this role could also be filled by the federal government. Research and best practices would be more useful if they were a publicly available product, endorsed by a national accessibility advisory council.
Ultimately, the elimination of barriers is dependent on two factors. First is the will to act and second is access to the resources to make changes. Libraries across Canada have been motivated to address accessibility issues for decades, but many lack the resources to implement plans that will reduce barriers. The most important avenue of support, particularly for non-profit institutions that provide a public service, will be funding to ensure that changes are not just proposed or suggested, but brought to pass. Rewarding leadership is important, but would function better as program or policy rather than as legislation or regulation.
How will we know if the legislation is effective in improving accessibility and removing barriers?
Government should report annually on the progress of implementation and effectiveness of accessibility legislation. This is a role that the minister should take responsibility for, but could also be supported in by an advisory panel. The report should tell Canadians about important case studies in successful implementation of principles, uptake on key measures at federally operated institutions and complaints received by the body established to receive and resolve those disputes. It should also contain a strategic plan that includes outcomes so that progress can be continually assessed.
Legislation should be examined at least every 5 years to reflect any overarching technological changes, research or medical advances that may substantially alter Canadians’ understanding of accessibility and, therefore, requires parliament’s attention.