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Know your AODA - What's happening in 2021?

January 27, 2021

Much of the world has had their eyes on 2021 as a big year for many, many reasons. Assuming you’re already inundated by the headlines, we don’t need to touch on the tidal wave of updates. Instead, let’s look at one major piece of legislation which will continue to make a difference for at least 15% of Ontarians. That’s nearly two million people in Ontario alone, not to mention the roughly 20% across Canada who likely benefit in some way.

Young couple in wheelchairs, enjoying a sunset view on the bank of a pond

AODA has entered the chat

On January 1st, 2021, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (or AODA) launched the final* planned level of Information and Communications compliance requirements. As of the time of writing this, all large (50 or more employees in Ontario) private and nonprofit companies, as well as all designated public sector organizations, must meet the equivalent of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (or WCAG) 2.0 Level AA with all online material. This is a step up from the previous Level A requirement in 2014.

The AODA was initially passed in 2005. This was a long-fought expansion of the previous “weak and limited” Ontarians with Disabilities Act, passed in 2001. The first stage of requirements came into effect in 2010 for the public sector, and 2012 for private and nonprofit. Training, reporting, and implementation tiers have kicked-in nearly every year since, with 2021’s Level AA compliance being the ultimate rung in the decade-long ladder.

This has been a welcomed change for everyone across Ontario who can finally enter many stores, restaurants, and public spaces without assistance.

Hand reading braille kiosk signage

For Ontarians who have been able to apply, interview, and get hired for a much wider range of jobs without being turned away because of accommodation requests, this has been a life-changing improvement.

For people across the globe who are empowered to use online retail or services based in Ontario, this has had an incalculable impact! Over 3.6 million websites around the world reportedly use a little eCommerce platform based in Ottawa, which conveniently falls under the AODA’s jurisdiction.

Technical compliance requirements

Assuming your business or public sector organization has already taken steps to match the AODA’s 2014 compliance standard of WCAG 2.0 Level A, the step to Level AA should be less effort to achieve.

In brief, according to Level Access, Level A “affects the broadest group with the most benefits and is essential”. Level AA adds improvements which “should work with most assistive technology on desktop and mobile devices” to help expand accessibility for your website’s visitors. There is a third level, AAA, but AODA has no existing plans to reach that tier.

Level AA will likely require some visual changes to websites, with the introduction of minimum colour contrast, visible focus states, resizable text, and a reduction of images of text. Ideally, with the markup, structure, and content improvements previously made for Level A, these additional considerations should be fairly simple to achieve.

A quick note on fix-alls

There are various all-in-one overlay services on the market which promise to “fix” all of your website’s accessibility issues in one simple step. These are a reasonable approach for making a quick and temporary workaround until you’re able to implement the full changes, but do not be mistaken: they will not permanently fix anything! In fact, these applications are more likely to get you into legal trouble, according to accessibility expert Adrian Roselli (at least, if you have American customers).

Reporting on compliance

Originally, the AODA included a required compliance report to go with the January 1st, 2021 deadline. Due to the pandemic, this has been bumped to June 30th, 2021 in order to give organizations more time to complete the process. Unlike the “large” organization distinction for Level AA compliance, the report must be filled-out and submitted to the province by any organization with 20-or-more employees in Ontario.

If the section above leads you to start reading through WCAG documentation, you may be absolutely dreading the thought of digesting more legalese. Fortunately, the province of Ontario has taken pains to make the reporting process as clear and easily understood as possible. This includes a readily downloadable PDF form for the final compliance report.

As with many other elements of the AODA, the compliance report is a mechanism to encourage organizations to take care in implementing an accessible experience for people with disabilities. The report should not be considered a checklist of things the province will fine you for (the province of Ontario lapses on their own compliance requirements in plenty of places), but rather an acknowledgement that your company is aware of and has taken steps to follow the law.

Giving it your best shot

One final note on meeting the AODA’s requirements: think of this as a spectrum of experience for your users. Like any legal requirements, courtrooms around the world are still deciding precisely what every letter of the WCAG means and how to interpret the grey areas. This means there is not and will likely never be a clear “100% complete” point when it comes to accessibility. Providing an accessible experience is all about embracing and thinking about human beings - not just ticking checkboxes.

Doctor and patient using sign language over a video call on a tablet device

With this in mind, consider what your company can do to enhance your audience’s experience. If you know you have gaps in your WCAG 2.0 Level AA compliance, take extra care to solicit feedback and treat any of it with the appropriate weight. The entire reporting, judgement, and fine system through the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act is intended to encourage cooperation, rather than punish noncompliance. This is exactly why the decade-long deadline structure started with availability of information, moved through internal training, building multi-year plans, and setting up public feedback channels.

If your customers are generous enough to take the time to let you know they’re encountering a barrier while using your website, listen to them! Respond and let them know you’ve heard them and ask if they’d be willing to help you land on a solution. An attitude like this will build a positive reputation, encourage forgiveness and understanding, and (most likely) keep your company from being fined by the province of Ontario**. This does not excuse a lack of compliance, but it will buy your organization time and good will on the road to getting there!

What about the rest of Canada?

This post has been focused exclusively on Ontario’s accessibility legislation. Ontario is generally considered to be leading the rest of the country in this regard, but it certainly isn’t the only ongoing progress. Next month, we’ll look at more legislation and initiatives focused on improving the lives of Canadians with disabilities.

 


*Organizations must submit two more compliance reports summarizing their implementation of AODA requirements, in June of 2021 and December of 2023. These do not involve new or additional compliance steps, however, and are meant as a summary of cumulative efforts from 2010 to 2021.

**Neither the author (Stephen Belyea) nor the publisher (Hey Nova) should be taken as legal counsel and do not make recommendations in any official capacity.

Written by

Stephen Belyea

Husband, father, habitual dork, a11y instigator + recovering front-end dev, taking a side-door into design, attempted writer, ex-pat Maritimer. He/him.

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