Introduction to Canadian Digital Accessibility Laws

Published September 10, 2020

With all the fear generated by the increasing number of published legal cases, no one wants to be on the wrong side of that battle. So, what can you do about your digital information as a law-abiding company?

There’s a lot of information out there. Separating out what applies to your websites and mobile apps can involve searching through federal and provincial websites. Accessibility laws in Canada can differ based on:

  • Whether you are a public sector organization or private business;
  • Where your business has been established;
  • Whether your business is country-wide or provincial and;
  • The size of your company.

In legal contexts, the international web standard WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) commonly serves as the requirements. There are three levels of accessibility conformance: A, AA, or AAA, each indicating rising levels of compliance. As the W3C is continually updating this to include increasingly modern contexts such as mobile, there are also different versions. Each law will specify the level of conformance and version required.

Here, we break down each one as it pertains to digital, so you can determine which ones apply to you.

Canadian Standard on Web Accessibility

The Canadian Standard on Web Accessibility (2011) requires all Government of Canada websites and web applications to conform to WCAG 2.0 Level AA. Outside of the government, this does not apply to any business.

Accessible Canada Act (ACA, 2019)

The federal Accessible Canada Act (ACA, 2019) was passed to align with the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This act has a broad vision and strategy to help people with disabilities by creating a barrier-free Canada by January 1, 2040.

There are two great visual representations with full text transcripts for the Accessible Canada Act. The infographics present the vision of the act, its goals and where it applies, and helpful statistics.

The purpose of the ACA relates to improvements related to both the built environment, as well as technology. This act applies to parliament, the Government of Canada, and all federally regulated private sector organizations including crown corporations, telecommunications service providers, transportation, Canadian Armed Forces, and financial institutions.

It does not apply to private businesses, as well as the Governments of the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

“Nothing without us.” Since its royal assent, the ACA is continuing to establish its specific regulations in consultation with people with disabilities and their various communities.

One key pillar of the ACA is to eliminate barriers for Canadians with disabilities to information and technology. While not yet explicit, it is expected to adopt the latest standard of WCAG at Level AA conformance for all websites and web applications.

The digital experience is also a component of some of the other touchpoints of the ACA. Here are some examples to consider:

  • Accessible workspaces can include conformance of employee-facing tools such as intranets, employee services, and internal learning resources.
  • Procurement can include conformance of digital tools and content from vendors.
  • Accessible services can include kiosks, parking machines, and merchant payment machines.

Provincial laws

In 2005, Ontario set precedent with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) serving as the first provincial accessibility law. This was followed by Manitoba’s Accessibility for Manitobans Act (2013) and Nova Scotia’s Access by Design 2030 (2018). Other provinces are expected to follow suit.

Currently, the AODA is the only provincial law that includes an explicit digital accessibility component.  The Ontario Government has created a web resource to help navigate the rules for digital accessibility.

The AODA applies to private or non-profit organizations with 50+ employees; and to public sector organizations. It does not apply to individuals who are self employed and do not have employees. Best efforts in accessibility are encouraged for all businesses in Ontario regardless of size.

All public-facing websites that were built or significantly refreshed since January 1st 2014 should already comply with Level A. This is currently the minimum standard.

There is an upcoming important deadline: By January 1, 2021, all public sector organizations and private organizations with 50 or more employees are required to be WCAG 2.0 AA accessible.

It is understood that websites are constantly updated. Any changes that are launched must also comply with Level AA to maintain its accessibility compliance status.

In addition, companies are expected to publish a Statement of Accessibility Commitment and Accessibility Policy. This is typically displayed on all corporate/company websites.

For those involved with procurement of web tools or services, also specifies, “The organization that controls the website must meet the accessibility requirements.” For example, if a company in Ontario owns and controls a website that displays content built by an international vendor, this content must comply with local regulations.

Going above and beyond

Regardless of the regulation, all businesses are encouraged to excel in accessibility efforts. There are several ways you can do this.

Keep up with WCAG

One of the easiest ways you can do this is by keeping up to date with the latest versions of WCAG. They adapt to keep pace with both current technologies and user research to support diverse needs including people with low vision and/or neurodiversity, as well as the mobile context.

Talk to people with disabilities

Consulting with people with disabilities from your business’ target market and incorporating their feedback will help to enhance the experience. In addition, providing different modalities of contact will make it easy for people with disabilities to offer their ideas for improvement.

Try assistive technology

Trying assistive technologies such as screen readers will help you empathize with the experience of someone who relies on them to access information. It can also help with ideating appropriate inclusive solutions. For example, having a poorly written alt tag for an image may pass for WCAG but it can still produce a barrier for someone trying to access that same information.

We all have the opportunity to push the boundaries beyond the stipulated requirements because it is the right thing to do.

Ongoing best efforts

Digital accessibility is an ongoing process. it is impossible to reach 100% compliance. That would require adapting your site to every human in Canada.

Instead, all businesses and organizations need to provide a compliance report describing ongoing best efforts to meet WCAG guidelines by the deadlines given. Depending on your business type, your progress report needs to be provided every two to three years. This shows your ongoing commitment to digital accessibility and inclusion.

Enforcement and fines

Under the ACA, any Canadian can file a complaint through the appropriate governing body. This can include the Accessibility Commissioner, the CRTC and the Canadian Transport Agency.

The Commissioner has broad power to conduct an investigation regardless of whether a complaint was filed. He or she has the power to order remediation of the website or web application and/or deliver a fine of up to $250,000 per violation.

In Ontario, the AODA fines are staggered. Based on the severity of the issue, and history of violations, the maximum daily fines for applicable corporations are up to $100,000 per day.

Now that you know the details of Canada’s digital accessibility laws, be proactive by updating and creating new web applications and sites that already comply with the latest version of WCAG at Level AA. You'll be less likely to get caught in a lawsuit and the benefits can really outweigh the legal requirements.


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