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Episode 10: Let's Talk About AccessAbility!

Video: Maayan Ziv

Meet Maayan Ziv, a  disabled Toronto resident who has developed an app, “Access Now”, that uses crowdsourcing to collect and share accessible spots around the world, giving mobility-challenged people the freedom to find ways to do what they want. Note: This video contains profane language.

Service Design Barriers: Building a More Inclusive Public Service

Julianna Rowsell

Julianna Rowsell

Accessibility and Inclusive Services Lead at Canadian Digital Service
& CSPS Digital Academy Fellow

Hi! I’m Julianna. I work on helping the Canadian Digital Service create accessible and inclusive services for Canadians. I also have an auto-immune disorder that impacts my ability to do some things. Having a chronic illness changes how I interact with the world around me. This is my story and I hope it will help you to not make assumptions about accessibility, but instead question them.

I am outspoken. I advocate and push boundaries for accessibility. If we in the public service don’t push, nothing can change. We need more education in government  on what barriers exist by including persons with disabilities throughout the discovery, design, development and delivery of a product or service.

Throughout my life, I have been exposed to many types of disabilities, injuries, and temporary impairments. For example, my father lost most of his fingers during an accident when I was a teenager. I watched him spend years learning to continue to be an amazing carpenter with just his pinky and thumb. Injuries can come out of nowhere, and completely change the way you do things and how you interact with the world around you.

I have faced barriers due to my auto-immune disorder. It has helped shape my views on accessibility because I have inherent lived experience.  I rarely use a mouse, and when I do, I use a vertical ergonomic mouse to cause the least amount of stress on my joints. To navigate and interact online, I use both a keyboard and voice recognition. When a service is not accessible using these technologies it can be difficult to complete tasks. For example, picking dates on a calendar, I might be able to access the calendar but not move through the dates to select the date I need if it’s not built with accessibility in mind. These experiences are the driving force behind my passion to improve accessibility.

My experiences have taught me not to make assumptions about how people use services. Every individual uses their own approach to best meet their needs. There are no average or “normal” users.

I have learned that accessibility is more than a compliance exercise completed by checking a box. We need to conduct user research, usability testing with persons with disabilities, and bring subject matter experts together to build more inclusive services.

At the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), we design for accessibility early and often. Recently, we hosted a panel of public servants with disabilities  to build awareness within our multidisciplinary teams (developers, designers, communications, product managers, and policy folks). Our panel participants included people with motor, vision, hearing, neurodiversity, and invisible disabilities. Their input, perspectives, and discussion around the barriers and challenges they face using government services have been critically important to our work.  One of the panel speakers provided this unexpected feedback: “My hearing aid is bluetooth enabled but my work phone is not bluetooth enabled.” – Angele from ESDC. Our intent is to share this research with the broader government community.

I am expanding on this research with the Canada School of Public Service Digital Academy as a Fellow in Accessibility and Inclusive Design. I will be using mixed methods to collect people’s stories through interviews, facilitated conversations and case studies. I  am moving forward with participants with disabilities who want to engage in the discussion and be part of this process. We wanted to better understand the barriers that people with diverse needs had with service design. Having conversations with persons with disabilities is a great way to start developing an understanding of their experiences and can inform design, development and delivery of products and services.

Things you can do

Here are some steps and processes you can follow to help build more inclusive and accessible services.

Do the research

Conversations with people with disabilities can spark unexpected feedback. Doing design research with people with disabilities helps define the problem space and informs the understanding of user needs. It also improves the human experience of digital services and serves to inform all aspects of design, development, and delivery.


Co-creation leads to better, more inclusive services by directly supporting people with disabilities. It ensures a holistic approach to accessibility and inclusion and embeds a sense of belonging that goes further than simply participating in activities, events and workspaces.

Raise awareness

By building capacity in delivery teams and raising awareness of accessibility and inclusive principles, we create a more inclusive environment for everyone. How we work together, interact, and communicate are key to building inclusive environments that encourage the participation and sense of belonging of people with disabilities.

If you are a public servant with a disability, and are interested in participating in research on building a more inclusive public service, please reach out

Video: Luna Bengio

Principal Advisor to the Deputy Minister
Office of Public Service Accessibility, TBS

So our office, which is called the Office of Public Service Accessibility, was created in August of 2018 with the appointment of the first ever deputy minister responsible for accessibility for the government in Canada. And that is really evidence that the government has committed to becoming a leader and a model for accessibility in the context of Bill C81. So Bill C81 is the Accessible Canada Act, now before the house. We’re very hopeful that it will receive Royal Assent before the house rises at the end of June.

And Bill C81 really sets the stage. It’s the first-ever accessibility legislation in Canada and it sets the stage for all federally regulated entities to really eliminate and avoid the creation of barriers to accessibility for Canadians with disabilities. So for us here at TBS, we are developing a Public Service Accessibility Strategy which is the roadmap for federal organizations… federal departments and agencies to prepare to meet or exceed the requirements under Bill C81.

The Public Service Accessibility Strategy has five goals so… five areas:

  • One is employment – recruitment, retention and promotion of employees with disabilities.
  • Second is access to the built environment so our buildings, whether they’re just for internal use within the public service or spaces that the public has access to.
  • Third is information and communications technology so to ensure that all government digital content and applications are accessible and usable by all Canadians including employees of the government in Canada.
  • Number four is equipping public servants to provide accessible programs and services.
  • The last goal, and not the least, is to create a disability or accessibility confident public service. So a public service that is an inclusive workplace that creates the condition for all to succeed including employees with disabilities.

And I think the key difference with this legislation, and certainly with our Public Service Accessibility Strategy, is that it really is built on engagement of people with disabilities. So the principle that is included in the convention the UN Convention on the Rights of persons with disabilities which says “nothing about us without us” means that people with disability have to be engaged, have to be part of the decisions, have to be asked for feedback, have to be part of the strategies to measure progress on accessibility. And that is true for the legislation and it is definitely true in the development of the Public Service Accessibility Strategy.

I am blind and so I use a screen reading software which is a piece of software that is installed on my tablet that reads out loud everything that’s on my screen and it allows me to navigate and to perform… it should allow me to perform anything that you do with a mouse with my keyboard basically. So it is, I think, one of the… probably the best screen reading software that exists out there. So it’s a really good piece of software that has been improved significantly over the years.

However, I don’t think there’s a week that goes by that I don’t call the IT support because I’m encountering some issue. Most of the time it’s about compatibility of my screen reading software with either an application that I’m using or a website or with changes that are made to IT policies that make it difficult for me to, for example, perform some actions only through the keyboard. And that’s really the issue. For example, you know, I need to be able to anything you do with your mouse with the keyboard. If some of these actions can only be performed using a mouse then I can have the best screen reader in the universe, it’s still going to have… I’m still going to encounter accessibility issues.

And so that’s why, in terms of making the workplace inclusive for people with disabilities, we not only have to think about oh do you need any what I call gadgets, any adaptive technique or technology to make, to help you work better? You also need the systems, the business practices, the work environment to be designed for inclusivity, to be designed for accessibility, so that everybody can contribute to their best and be productive.

The involving users with disabilities and making sure that you test, you know, for accessibility is also really important. So that we are able to catch issues as they arise rather than wait until everything is done, all the decisions are made, all the money spent and all of a sudden it goes out to either to the public or internally within the public service and somebody, you know, emails back and says “oh this is not accessible.” So I think that’s really, really the most important message that I could give is: let’s make sure that we think about accessibility along the entire design, planning, design, development, testing and implementation of any digital whether it’s content such as web pages, or documents, or whether it’s applications.

Five Accessibility Myths Debunked!

False! Did you know that 50% of the population have a disability if you take into account “invisible disabilities” such as colour blindness, cognitive, mental health or chronic pain-related and age-related impairments such as low vision, low hearing or cognitive impairments? Also keep in mind that most people will encounter a temporary disability at least once in there lives due to illness or injury. By designing your website, product or service with accessibility and inclusiveness in mind, you are effectively serving a much wider audience. For example, curb cuts are primarily intended for wheelchair accessibility however they serve a larger audience such as cyclists, parents with strollers, delivery personnel and more. Automatic doors, ramps, universal symbols are all things we use every day which make our lives easier and which we are appreciative of. Avoid only thinking of the blind and the deaf when you think about accessible design – it’s so much more than that!

False! Your entire team who is part of your design and development process bares a responsibility in making your digital content accessible. Is your content easy to navigate? Is the information laid out and expressed in a manner that’s easy to understand? Do you present your content in more than one format? Include your developers, designers and  disabled collaborators or accessibility experts in discussions early on so that everyone can contribute to designing with accessibility in mind from the very beginning.

False! What is most time-consuming and expensive is having to go back to make changes and fixes at the end of a project.  In reality, if you make things accessible from the beginning the services are less costly and engage more of the population. In addition, conducting research and user-testing with disabled and non-disabled  users costs little to nothing and can help you get things right from the start. Think less about disabilities and more about universality. Universal design is human-centered design. The inclusive design of spaces and products will benefit people of all ages, with or without physical or mental limitations.

False! Persons with disabilities are often dismissed as incapable of accomplishing a task without the opportunity to display their skills. However, they are generally just as capable and self-sufficient as your other users, but sometimes by using other methods. Disabilities generally force people to problem-solve and to find alternatives when faced with a challenging situation. This is why providing alternative formats to your content or service is a best practice. Providing choices to your audience will allow them to consume a service in the manner which suits their needs best.

False! WCAG 2.0 is a web accessibility standard composed of three successive levels (A, AA,AAA), which each will make pages more accessible to more people in more situations, but even if you meet all three levels of WCAG 2.0, there are still people who will not be able to use the page and others who may be able to use the page for certain tasks. You should be striving to go beyond WCAG standards by testing and getting feedback from users with different types of disabilities.

Listen to testimonials

Listen to real stories from real public servants who live with a disability.

Jenny Ferris

Jenny Ferris

Free Agent, Workplace Solutions,
Public Services and Procurement Canada

Interviewer: Jenny, you are blind.

Jenny Ferris: Yes. Yes, I am completely blind. One of the biggest barriers for me to be working productively and effectively is with the government technologies. In my private life, my personal life, I use a lot of technology to help me just be a successful human in society. In terms of wayfinding apps like Google Maps, Apple maps. Because I use off-the-shelf software in my personal life, like Windows right off the shelf and the Microsoft Office suite of products right off the shelf, Google Chrome right off the shelf. Whereas working in the government environment… things have been adapted for the secure environment, I suppose, and a lot of times that compromises my ability to interface with the government application. Sometimes those security standards get in the way of Jaws or of voiceover which is the Mac equivalent, the Apple equivalent for a screen reader. It’s not an off-the-shelf Windows operating system we use. It’s a Government of Canada issue so they’ve taken out some features. They’ve added other features. They’ve slightly modified an existing feature. So, because of these modifications and omissions and eliminations or additions, it makes my ability to interact with the software completely, independent and autonomous a challenge. That’s what’s challenging.

And partly because of the fact that I’m blind I require consistency and universality across platforms, or like from my work computer to my personal computer. If I know how my personal computer is supposed to behave in a Windows environment, I have that same expectation of my work computer.

Some of the main barriers I find is that the government’s applications … they’re not compatible with voiceover.

Interviewer: Will you give some examples of those tools?

Jenny: Oh golly. You know, I have a real… I struggle to use GCconnex a lot. I struggle to use GCcollab and some of those other GC tools.

So, it’s just not easy to navigate. And as a as a Free Agent, we are required to go on to GCpedia and update our profile in terms of where we’re working. Because it’s just not accessible for me to be independent, to do that autonomously and independently and this is one where I see the future of government being.

We need to support individuals to be more autonomous and it’s part of being a citizen too. As a citizen, a Canadian citizen, I expect to be able to access government services the way I would access private services, private industry.

Another thing these days, what is really good, that is available in the private sector and it’s still pretty expensive as a tool for the everyday user: it’s, um, I think it’s called Eyes Remote Access or something like this (Note: ). I wear these virtual reality glasses and in the glasses is a camera and so when I turn my head the agent, that I’ve connected to through an application on my phone, is able to see where I am through the glasses. And the agent can provide feedback about the environment and an access to a service such as AIRA allows me to be able to, on-the-fly, independently, connect to a remote agent and ask that agent for assistance. So the agent will walk me through something like that. “Ok walk 200 meters. Yep. Keep on going. See this next driveway here. You want to make a right.”

Interviewer: It’s to find your way and describe the place? And it could be used by anyone, everywhere?

Jenny: Yeah. See, here’s where I know the differences and where the Government of Canada can learn from the private sector. The private sector is very good at recognizing the problems in the environment and developing software to resolve that problem. But what they do, also, is they have user testing and they make it user experience so they develop a software or an application to a user’s specifications rather than “what did we get funding for?” Also, what’s really good and what’s lacking here in Canada – over in the US, for example, they have the “Americans With Disabilities Act” and that, there there’s so much accessibility that’s built inherently into that legislation and I don’t think the “Accessible Canada Act” which is set to go through the third reading in the house I think, I don’t know when but…

Interviewer: C81

Jenny: Yes Bill C81. Anyway I don’t know how much accessibility of everyday software is inherently built into this act. Whereas it is a human rights case in the States. So if there’s blind people that can’t access a piece of software that is available and open for use by every other sighted person in the USA. If it doesn’t meet that accessibility standards there’s legal ramifications for that. and people have rights to be able to take it to court and say “Hey. You have prevented me. You’ve excluded me from this experience. And they have a case. And they have so much, so many period of time to make it accessible and they also are required to work with that community to make sure it’s accessible.

Interviewer: I will end with that and that’s true this time I just….We wonder how we could make people live disability. Is that possible for us? Would you suggest something that we could… maybe close our eyes and using Jaws to see what works and what doesn’t work. Or another screen reader that would be easy for us to try.

Jenny: Well that’s the one thing is I really would recommend using the testers in the AAACT office. They should have testers. Because they’re the ones that live that experience day in and day out. They know how to navigate using a screen reader. Whereas somebody who’s sighted, who would go and install the screen reading software on their computer, they don’t even know how to use it. And the temptation is just way too big to open their eyes and take the information in from the screen.

Interviewer: So we should do that.

Jenny: Yes. Remove the screen. Make it not even there and just use your speakers.

Interviewer: Thank you very much

Jenny: No problem. Anytime.

Interviewer: Jenny Ferris. That was very nice. And Victoria [guide dog] was very quiet and nice too under the table. Thank you so much.

Angèle Charlebois

Angèle Charlebois

Business analyst, IT Accessibility,
Employment and Social Development Canada

Angèle Charlebois: My passion is hearing loss because I have a hearing loss. Sometimes I feel like I want to say that I’m deaf. I’m deaf without my hearing aid. With my hearing aid I don’t have a disability. For example, we’re sitting in a room where I can hear you but there’s also a fan. So the sound of the fan is competing with your voice. And I’m not used to separating those two sounds. So for me it can be a huge distraction.

Interviewer: And do you feel that we’re far away from being accessible in the government in general?

Angèle: Well, with the Accessibility Act we are definitely in the right direction. The culture change is going to be a challenge because there’s going to be a bottleneck effect. We have a lot of accessibility experts and often times those accessibility experts are people with a disability. Because they’re the users of Jaws. They’re the users of Supernova. They know what the obstacles are. They experience it each and every single day. So those are the people that we should really tap into.

And when I learned about the announcement that the government is hiring 5,000 people with disabilities, I’m like “yay!”. That’s another step in the right direction so I’m hopeful.

It’s going to be a challenge. We’ve got a lot of work ahead but I am hopeful and the Accessibility Act is a step in the right direction.

Interviewer: And what is the biggest challenge to you?

Angèle: For me, when it comes to accessibility, it’s the training aspect. It’s educating, informing people about accessibility. How to create an accessible Word document.

All public civil servants, you have to keep in mind that when you create a document you don’t know where that document is going to land. You don’t know because it’s not your property. It’s property that belongs to the government of Canada and you need to make sure that that document is accessible. You don’t know where it’s gonna end up it could wind up on a desk somebody who’s blind and uses Jaws, a screen reader, and if you don’t make it accessible you’re not including that person.

So that’s going to be the biggest challenge: educating and informing people how to make… how to be accessible.

Interviewer: And you were mentioning also a few tools from Microsoft that you would recommend?

Angèle: Microsoft has a very good tool called the Accessibility Checker and, again if you google Microsoft Accessibility Checker, you’ll get a lot of information on that.

Once you’ve created your documents, what I like to do is, I’ll have the accessibility checker on as I’m creating the documents. So I don’t have to create the document and then start all over again. Put the accessibility checker on. I’ll be notified right away that there’s been a mistake, an accessibility mistake made. So the accessibility checker is a fantastic tool to use

Interviewer: And what are you up to? Because awareness is very important to you. So I think that in your own organization you have something in mind for that, to make sure that we’re becoming better at being accessible. What is it exactly?

Angèle: Yes we created a course called Accessibility 101 and that’s going to be available for employees at ESDC. The launch is going to be on June 25th.

Interviewer:  Do you think that the law, Bill 81, will help?

Angèle: Oh yes. Oh yes. I think it’s going to be… it’s going… the bottleneck effect that we have is a good problem to have. That’s my way of thinking. It’s a good problem to have because at least now we have people that are aware. “Oh, I have to be accessible. Oh I have to be accessible.” Or even our employees with disabilities – they’re not going to be as shy about asking for an accommodation. They’re gonna feel much more confident about asking for an accommodation.

Like, for example, I’m almost deaf and in order for me to attend a meeting I need a special device called the Rogers Table Mic and the Rogers Select. My audiologist at La Ressource put me together with Oreille Bionic and they’re proposing a special device for me to use in meetings so that I can hear. The Accessibility Act should remove that worry about requesting an accommodation.

Interviewer: And when do you think that act will be adopted?

Angèle: I am hoping at the end of the month. It’s coming.

Interviewer: It’s really coming. You’re confident that it will be adopted?

Angèle: Yes, it will be adopted.

Last thing that I want to share is for my colleagues and people with disabilities: don’t lose hope. Don’t get too discouraged. The accessibility Act is a good thing and it’s going to take a while before everything’s put in place but give the experts a chance to put everything in place. Don’t expect change to happen overnight. It’s going to take time. And keep pushing keep pushing keep self-advocating… in a tactful way.

Interviewer: Thank you so much, Angèle.

Angèle: Thank you

Making it Personal: Web Accessibility Testing

Tom Camps

Tom Camps

Entrepreneur-in-Residence, CSPS Digital Academy

So, for weeks the Busrides team has been grinding away on web content and layout. Finally it’s go-live day. Time to push the big “PUBLISH” button. And we’re done. Oh yeah!

“Did you do an accessibility review?” This question isn’t going ruin my mood because I know that we did testing when built our template back in the day. And the team ALWAYS puts alt-text on images. And ALL of our videos have closed captions.

Yup my feet are up on my desk. I’m in the moment and feeling pretty smug.

You can probably guess what comes next.

As it turns out, you can’t just test once, or test with just one tool. Talk to people “in the know” and they’ll recommend a tool KIT (see the “Additional Resources” section in this episode). Each tool has different strengths and tests different things. And the experts take it personally if you don’t listen – they’ll be very happy to SHOW you how you are missing the accessibility mark. Oooooh… that’s a long ugly list of errors. Point taken.

Then I met Jen Ferris (listen to her great interview in this episode). Accessibility is personal for Jen… and her guide dog, Victoria. She pointed out that, for her, closed captions on videos meant that she had to listen to two voices concurrently – the video narrative and the screen-reader vocalizing the closed-captions. Ugh. Jen asked that we accompany videos with a separate transcript file. Yes, Jen, we’ll do that.

It turns out that, across the public service, there are champions of accessibility and inclusion. For example, talk to Julianna Rowsell of CDS (read her blog in this episode). Accessibility is personal for Julianna. She thinks about tech in the context of people. Like who might we be leaving behind? Julianna will prick your smugness balloon in half a heartbeat. Did you know that 50% of Canadians have some degree of disability? Julianna knows that many disabilities are invisible. And now I know that too.

Of course, we all build our apps and websites to connect with our users, our citizens and our customers. We can stay smug, with our feet on the desk, and ignore 50% or more of our target audience.  Or we can prioritize accessibility testing and accommodation with tools and processes that are readily available.

Final thought: Talk to your users! They live with what you build… or they ignore it.

Our job isn’t done until we make accessibility personal.

Learn More About Accessibility

Check out the curated accessibility resources below.

Share your thoughts!

Have you observed or taken part in making the public service a more accessible and inclusive workplace? We'd like to hear about those accomplishments and any works in progress. Contribute to the dialogue using the comment box below!

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