Companies under pressure to comply with Ontario's new website accessibility rules

·3 min read

TORONTO — Time is running out for Ontario companies to show their websites comply with new standards making them more accessible for people with disabilities or face fines of up to $100,000.

Provincially regulated private-sector and not-for-profit organizations with more than 50 employees must ensure their sites are accessible for people with vision, hearing or other disabilities under legislation that took effect in January.

However, the Ford government has given until the end of this month for organizations to self-report on their compliance with international standard Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

The WCAG guidelines, which are updated regularly much like software, outline how websites, smartphone apps and other digital tech can be used by people with a range of disabilities.

For example, there are standards for video captioning for people with hearing problems, high-contrast colour combinations for those with limited vision or descriptive audio for people who can't see text or pictures.

Simon Dermer, who co-founded a Toronto company that helps organizations to put in place accessible digital platforms, says Ontario is the first jurisdiction in Canada to require the WCAG 2.0 standard but the province's enforcement record could be better.

"Ontario does a very, very good job of articulating the things that need to be done in a manner that's more intelligible to the average reader. But enforcement has been very lax, up until now," says Dermer, executive chairman of Essential Accessibility.

The company provides organizations with a set of online tools to become compliant, then stay up-to-date as government rules in different jurisdictions and technology standards evolve.

Employment lawyer Paul Boshyk, who advises clients about what they need to do to comply with Ontario's disability law, says enforcement falls under the Ministry of Seniors and Accessibility but it relies on a self-reporting process.

"When an organization files their report and identifies a gap in compliance that's typically where the ministry would get involved," says Boshyk, who is a partner at McMillan LLP

He says the ministry typically would contact a non-compliant company, give it a timetable for meeting the requirements and provide some support to explain what it needs to do to meet the deadline.

"A first offence, which is minor in nature, is only going to result in an administrative penalty of $500," Boshyk says.

While the law establishes a maximum fine of $100,000 per day, Boshyk says that amount is limited by a set of schedules, where even a history of serious contraventions is subject to only a $15,000 fine for corporations

"So, the legislation has teeth … but the penalties are a lot less stiff than they otherwise would be," Boshyk says.

But Dermer says the digital accessibility rules may get a lot of public scrutiny because the COVID-19 has highlighted the need for websites and apps that can effectively deliver commercial, government, medical and education services.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 3, 2021.

David Paddon, The Canadian Press