The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognizes accessibility of information and communication technology as a human right. There are two main laws about accessibility in Ontario: the Ontario Human Rights Code OHRC and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).
The AODA and OHRC work together. The AODA sets specific accessibility requirements. The OHRC also requiring organizations to respond to individual requests and not discriminate. Keep both laws in mind because if there is a conflict between them, the law that sets the higher level of accessibility will prevail (AODA, s. 38).
Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation and AODA
In Ontario, the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation () of the AODA sets legal requirements for organizations in the “broader public sector” and to “educational or training institutions.”
The following AODA requirements relate to the technology of colleges and universities:
- They must think about accessibility when buying goods and services. Section 5 of the AODA says that organizations must “incorporate accessibility design, criteria and features when procuring or acquiring goods, services or facilities, except where it is not practicable to do so.”
- Websites that the public can access must conform with WCAG 2.0 Level AA. This is interpreted to include applications and social media accounts.
- When someone asks for it, they must give educational or training resources or materials in an accessible format that meets the needs of the person with a disability. This must be done by getting a electronic format or arranging to give comparable resources in an accessible format. Conversion-ready means information in an electronic format that is easily converted into an accessible format (e.g. HTML and structured Word files).
- Organizations that produce educational or training textbooks must make accessible or conversion-ready versions available.
- Libraries of educational institutions must provide conversion-ready formats upon request.
- Report on how they are following AODA requirements by December 31, 2021.
By law, “conversion-ready” means that an electronic or digital format that facilitates conversion into an accessible format. For example, a conversion-ready document might be in Microsoft Word or HTML.
There are some exceptions to these general obligations, such as:
- Where it is not practicable to incorporate accessibility criteria into procurement
- Information that the institution does not control directly or indirectly
- Special collections and rare books
The OHRC and human rights codes in other provinces set complementary obligations. Colleges and universities must reasonably accommodate the needs of people with disabilities unless the college or university would experience “undue hardship”. The OHRC often arises when someone asks for an (e.g., a student requests a learning resource in an accessible format). The college or university must consider the request and grant it if reasonable.
The OHRC has also been legally interpreted to require an organization to think about an accessibility need in advance. For example, in the legal case of Lepofsky v. Toronto Transit Commission, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal found that the TTC had breached the OHRC by failing to implement audible stop announcements.
The challenge in interpreting the OHRC is that it does not say what exact level of accessibility is needed. Analysis of the exact limits of the OHRC obligations would necessitate independent legal advice. However, the OHRC obligations go beyond those that are listed in the AODA.
Future Legal Obligations
In late 2019, Ontario’s Information and Communications Standard Development Committee (I&C SDC) released Interim Recommendations, which includes recommendations for a first and second phase of revisions to the IASR. The Postsecondary Education Standards Development Committee (PE SDC) released initial recommendations in June 2021 for feedback from the public. None of these recommendations have yet been accepted or implemented into regulation.
The recommended changes that are relevant the technology of colleges and universities include:
- Broadening the definition of “website” to include “both mobile applications which run from a website, and those which run as a standalone device but rely on the internet for function.”
- Providing more specifics about how to incorporate accessibility design, criteria, and features in procurement. However, it does not say what accessible design looks like.
- Requiring all materials, assessments, and multimedia created or sourced by faculty to be available in multiple accessible formats.
- Technology used in digital learning must be accessible or a functionally usable alternative option must be provided.
- Developing a plan to vet technology, seamlessly include accessibility in digital learning and consult with stakeholders about this plan.
- Identify in advance and communicate to students the accessibility features of digital technology and learning components needed for each course.
- Having a digital technology accessibility plan.
- Appointing a high-ranking employee as a digital accessibility technology lead.
Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation
Describes information that is in an electronic format that can be easily converted into an accessible format.
A change that is made so that a person with a disability is able to fully participate or access information.