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Sam Savona
Bob Fenton
David Lepofsky

January 31, 1996

Hon. John Snobelen
Minister of Education & Training
22nd Floor, Mowat Block
900 Bay Street
Toronto ON M7A 1L2

Dear Mr. Snobelen:

Re: Accessibility of School Computers to Students and Staff with Disabilities

I am writing to you as Co-chair of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee. The ODA Committee is a broad-based association of individuals with disabilities and organizations concerned with the rights of persons with disabilities, which has come together to advocate the enactment of strong new legislation in Ontario which will promote a barrier-free society for persons with disabilities - legislation which we call an "Ontarians With Disabilities Act".

Your Government committed to the enactment of an Ontarians with Disabilities Act during the last election, but has not yet taken any steps to develop or implement such. One of the important areas in which barriers now exist for persons with disabilities is in the school system. We are writing to bring to your attention one particular area where these barriers are of serious concern, and to recommend immediate action on your part. We would hope that longer term solutions in this area would be addressed in an Ontarians with Disabilities Act, but urge specific non-legislative action by you now in the meantime.

As you have commented publicly, computers are vital to the education system and will play an increasingly vital role in the future. You have expressed strong concerns about the growing technology gap between those who have and can use computers on the one hand, and those who do not on the other. You have expressed a commitment on behalf of the Government to bridge this technology gap through the school system. This gap is of critical significance to persons with disabilities, both students and staff members within the educational system.

Computer technology, both hardware and software, is usually designed without addressing the needs of persons with disabilities who might want to use that technology, for example there is now a massive move in software toward the use of graphics rather than text on the monitor of a computer. This works to the dramatic disadvantage of blind and visually impaired persons who can access text on a computer screen via special Braille screens and computerized voices, but who face great difficulty in accessing graphics. The computer hardware and software industry has generally not taken the needs of persons with disabilities as seriously, and has rarely if ever endeavoured to build disability accessibility into computer technology.

We are writing to ask that your Ministry take a leadership role to help address this problem in the school context. In particular, we would request that your Ministry take steps to ensure that any new computer technology acquired by or for schools in Ontario be accessible to and fully usable by persons with disabilities. As we know your Government to be very cost-conscious, we are pleased to inform you that this can be done at essentially no cost to the Government. This is because our strategy concerns the acquisition of new computer hardware and software. In other words, we ask that this requirement be imposed on schools for the acquisition of computer hardware and software in the future. That technology needs to be bought and paid for in any event. By requiring that new acquisitions be accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities, this merely affects the purchasing choices, not the expenditures by government and school boards. Indeed, such a policy would create a much-needed incentive for technology producers to develop hardware and software which is more accessible to persons with disabilities.

It is critical to understand the implications of this issue. The computers which will be used in schools in the year 2000 have not yet been purchased or even designed. They will be purchased with taxpayers' dollars. If the taxpayers, through the instrumentality of the Government, require that those tax dollars be used to purchase only disability-accessible computer technology, then children with disabilities will be able to bridge the technology gap in schools. Moreover, schools will be able to more effectively employ teachers and other staff with disabilities. On the other hand, if those taxpayers' dollars are not used to purchase only disability-accessible computer technology, then new barriers will be created to make it even more difficult for children with disabilities as well as staff with disabilities to secure equal opportunity in the school system, and thereby to bridge the technology gap of which you have publicly spoken.

It costs little or nothing to prevent new barriers from being created. It will cost society a great deal further down the road if those barriers are allowed to be created now.

To adopt the strategy that we propose, your Ministry would be following up on your personally-expressed concerns to bridge the technology gap. We are essentially urging that you adopt a strategy to bridge the specific technology gap which now threatens persons with disabilities.

We would be pleased to meet with you to discuss our concerns in this regard. We would also urge that you contact your colleague, the Minister of Citizenship, to whom the Premier has assigned lead responsibility for the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, to co-ordinate legislative work in this context with the Ministry of Citizenship.

Yours sincerely,

M. David Lepofsky

cc: Hon. Marilyn Mushinski
Naomi Alboim
Richard Dicerni
Hon. Mike Harris

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