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Headshot of me wearing red lipstick Kara Babcock

The federal government hates blind people and web designers

Originally I was just going to tweet a link to this CBC news article and leave it at that. The more I thought about it, however, the more outraged I became. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's out of some need to feel vicariously oppressed, on account of the fact that I am a tall white male and thus systemically unoppressed. Maybe it's because, although I am not a professional web designer, I am familiar enough with the field to weep over the attitude displayed here by the government. It is 2011. Last December, the Web turned twenty years old. And we still can't support blind users? Seriously?

That is what the federal government says. Apparently, rather than spend taxpayer money to pay web designers to update its websites, it would rather spend that money paying lawyers to appeal this court decision. Rather than offer equal services to blind users, it would rather go to court and spend our tax dollars to ensure it can continue discriminating. The government is making us accomplices to discrimination. And here I thought I lived in Canada, not the United States.

I am taking a Philosophy of the Internet course this term, online of course. I'm so excited for it, because the Internet excites me in general. I look around and see all the change that the Internet makes possible; we are living through exciting times, and the world is never going to be the same thanks to the Internet. Not all of this change will be for the better, but when is it ever?

So it pains me that, twenty years after the inception of the Web, there is still a deeply-entrenched attitude among corporations and governments that somehow the Web is not essential and that not everyone need have access to the Web. Increasingly, however, we are seeing more services move to an online platform. If the Web is not essential now, it soon will be. But you know what? According to the government, if you can't see, then tough luck:

Government lawyers had argued there was no discrimination because those same services are provided in other formats, such as on the phone, in person or by mail.

That's right: the Web is for sighted people only. That seems to be the stance implicit in this argument, that "other formats" will be available for those people who happen to be visually-impaired. No, no, don't bother asking the government to make its websites accessible. People with disabilities don't matter.

There is a word for this behaviour: disgusting.

As an amateur web developer, I pride myself in being aware of Web standards and striving to implement them as faithfully as possible. Fortunately, because I do not get paid by corporate clients to build them websites to which millions of users will flock, because I do not provide any great service to the public, if I happen to make a mistake and render my website inaccessible to blind people, it isn't a big deal. (And if you are blind and trying to read this and your screen reader is rebelling against you, please let me know so I can try to fix it.)

I don't think we should let the government just shrug like I can and say, "No big deal, go use the telephone." Making websites accessible to the blind is not, for the most part, difficult. It requires effort, and depending on what type of data you want to communicate, some creativity. Somehow, I think the ultimate cost of adding that accessibility to its websites would be less than the court costs involved in appealing Justice Kelen's ruling. More importantly, the government has an obligation to serve its citizens--all of its citizens--and I reject on moral grounds its argument that alternative formats are an excuse for having inaccessible websites.

This is just another incident that underscores our government's inability to keep pace with the development of life in a digital age. Canadians still have woefully inadequate broadband penetration, something the Conservatives have done little to rectify--and while the Liberals promise more, I don't believe they would do a much better job. All of our parties are mired in pre-digital perspectives. They are too afraid or too corrupt to take on the telecommunications companies that dominate our Internet and mobile services and squeeze out competition at the price of innovation so that they can make more profit.

In the end, it isn't just blind people who lose. It isn't just web designers. It's everyone. The rest of the world moves forward, and Canada will be left behind in the digital dust. Because our government doesn't care.