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People with disabilities feel 'left out' of the modern digital workplace

Public service jobs are just part of the problem, advocates say.

Blind person using computer with braille computer display and a computer keyboard.

zlikovec / iStock

Blind person using computer with braille computer display and a computer keyboard.

Former federal worker Abigail Shorter is taking the government to task in a human rights case. After her position was made redundant, she wasn’t able to find a new one in the public service. Because of her disability, she claims she isn’t able to use much of the software required in government jobs.  

Her lawyer told CBC that some public-service computer programs, including the notoriously buggy new payroll program Phoenix, can’t be used without a mouse, making them problematic for anyone, like Shorter, whose disability affects their hand-eye coordination or ability to use their hands. 

Shorter's case, which is currently before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, is striking a chord. For many Canadians with disabilities, feeling shut out of the modern digital workplace is a daily reality. And most of them don't work for the government.

In fact, most don’t work at all. According to a 2014 Statistics Canada report, less than half of Canadian adults with a disability are employed.

Megan McHugh


Megan McHugh

Ask someone like Megan McHugh, and it’s easy to understand one of the reasons why. She is hard of hearing and partially sighted with deteriorating vision. As a contract instructor at the Canadian Helen Keller Centre, she teaches others with low vision how to use computers for work and everyday life, with the help of assistive programs such as ZoomText. But the limitations can be frustrating.  

“Sometimes software is not low-vision friendly,” McHugh wrote in an email. The problems are legion: tiny font, poor contrast, cluttered layout and inflexible settings.

"Assistive technology programs, features and work-arounds can go a long way, but sometimes they just aren't enough," McHugh said. She added that many programs that do have some features for people with disabilities are "so draining to use, I don't have the time and energy to put into struggling with it." And she knows if she's struggling, her students will too.

Problems often arise when companies don't build accessibility into the core of their programs or websites, and instead try to tack them on after the fact, explained Mike Gifford, the founder of OpenConcept Consulting, which specializes in accessible web development.

"It’s kind of like making a heritage building accessible. You can do it, but it will probably be cheaper to bulldoze the building and start from scratch then to try to retrofit," he said.

So much of what we do at work – from banking to writing documents to research to file-sharing – is now done through a browser, Gifford explained, so it’s important that not just all the software, but also all the websites people are expected to use at work are accessible. 

And many just aren’t. Some can’t be navigated solely with a keyboard. Often, multiple different elements on a webpage – like questions on a form, for instance – are all labelled, in the page’s alt text, as the same thing. That's confusing for someone with vision issues who is using a screen reader. Sometimes alt-text labels, like the ones that describe images on a page, are missing entirely. 

The solution requires a “change the culture of developers so that accessibility is understood and taken seriously,” Gifford said.

(Think your website is accessible? You can run free programs to see how disability-friendly it is.)

There are international standards for building accessibility into the online experience: The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The rules for who is required to adhere to these standards vary from province to province.

In Ontario, for example, all new and updated websites for public sector organizations and private organizations/NGOs with more than 50 employees have been bound by an acessibility standard since 2014, and they'll have to meet an even higher one by 2021. However, companies will not have to make their internal “intranet” that employees use accessible.

“There has been a tendency for people, if they think about accessibility, to think about it as a public-facing website. They don’t think about it from the back-end administration," Gifford said.

The ultimate result of poor accessibility is that people with disabilities aren't able to do jobs they're qualified for, explained B.C.-based accessibility and inclusion consultant Marco Pasqua, who has cerebral palsy.

“I have friends who have their master's or their Ph.D, and the only thing that’s keeping them from a gainful employment situation is having adapted or accommodated software," he said. "Everything else in their life and their career path checks off all of those boxes that an employer is looking for.”

49 %
The portion of Canadians 25-64 with disabilities who are employed. For those without disabilities, it's 79 per cent.


In 2010, a Toronto judge ruled the federal government violated Donna Jodhan’s rights because, being blind, she was not able to apply for public-service jobs online. Among other issues, the website did not work with her screen reader software, and she had to get help from a sighted person to use it. Jodhan won her case on the grounds the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees all Canadians equal access to government information and services. 

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