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Human Rights Complaint Filed Against City Of Kawartha Lakes

City's website frustrates man with impaired vision

David Nesseth Local News - Monday, March 05, 2007 Updated @ 9:08:34 AM

A wheelchair that can't fully access a restaurant is akin to a blind Internet user who can't fully access a website.

That's the perspective of Cresswell resident Geof Collis, who last Wednesday launched a human rights complaint against the City of Kawartha Lakes for providing inadequate access to municipal documents on its website.

Collis' vision is impaired by retinitis pigmentosa to the extent that he can't read.

When exploring the Internet he uses a screen reader program called JAWS. It reads aloud what's on the page, but when it comes to Adobe's portable document format (.pdf), a prolific file extension with all levels of governments, JAWS is like a fish out of water.

"It will often crash the system," he said.

Collis has a high-end computer with the latest version of Adobe Acrobat Reader, which even has its own speech synthesizer. But for someone as computer savvy as Collis, it's a "two-wheel" version, he said, when compared to the versatility of JAWS. He said he can't afford to have all the latest hardware and software all the time.

Screen reader technology, he estimated, is consistently six months behind the web's roaring pace.

"I feel like I'm hounding a kid to clean their room," Collis said. "If I don't keep on them, they'll just back pedal."

Through his involvement with the city's accessibility committee, Collis spearheaded an overhaul of the municipal website in 2004 to tear down some of its barriers and help create useful new features.

"I didn't know as much then as I do now," Collis said regretfully.

Kawartha Lakes spent $10,000 to $12,000 removing Flash from its site, creating optional coloured backgrounds, cascade style sheet files, adding picture description features and graphically marking its links.

"We know we're not perfect, but we're working to make it better," said Brenda Stonehouse, the city's communications officer and the one essentially responsible for placing most of the 3,000 pages of documents on the city's website. She approves the documents before sending them to an in-house webmaster, who then transfers them online.

Stonehouse said the website is compliant with the W3C web accessibility initiative, their current benchmark. They've made the site accessible to people with all kinds of disabilities. It can even be easily navigated without the use of a mouse.

WebAIM is a notable U.S. organization based in Utah working to influence the custodians of important websites, such as government sites, in order to make them more accessible. Although the organization does not make statements to the media, member Jonathan Whiting directed The Daily Post to an online tutorial about making .pdf documents more accessible.

According to WebAIM, the city should be able to provide HTML links on its site in addition to links to .pdf documents.

The site states,"Although Adobe is doing a better job of removing accessibility barriers from their product, HTML is still the preferred web format by the majority of users with disabilities."

When informed of the option to use HTML, which would solve most of Collis' issues, Stonehouse said, "Obviously, if it's something available, we could probably do that."

Collis doesn't expect all 3,000 pages of information on the city's website to be retrofitted with HTML links, just from this point on.

But even that won't solve another .pdf issue for Collis and his his 4.51 version of JAWS (he said the latest version isn't as good). Many .pdfs are actually just a large image. There may be text, but it's still part of the picture, which means Collis' screen reader can't interpret what it says. This is why he feels the best plan is to abandon the .pdf format altogether. He would much rather see pure text (.txt) files instead.

"Our stream is going against that .pdf stream," Collis said.

Hard copies of virtually any municipal document can be accessed at city hall, generally without charge, unless it's a massive report. The city will even mail residents their desired documents. Collis' response: "You can be the one I call to read them to me. My wife has a life of her own."

Collis runs a website called accessibility news.ca.

dnesseth@thepost.ca.

Taken from http://www.thepost.ca/webapp/sitepages/content.asp?contentid=430190&catname=Local+News&classif=News+%2D+Local.

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