Laura Talbot, Laura M. Talbot, and Laura (M.) Talbot-Allan are all the same person. She is a former vice-president for external relations at the University of Waterloo (currently Meg Beckel), after whom an award was named. She’s a former secretary-general of the CRTC. She’s a member of the board of directors of the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer. She is listed, in several places, as the principal of Talbotallan (sic) Consulting, which, in that orthography or as Talbot-Allan Consulting, has no discernible telephone listing or Web site.

More interestingly, Laura M. Talbot-Allan is chair of the Accessible Information and Communications Standards Development Committee of the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services. That committee will become important for people with disabilities in the largest province in Canada. It will develop a standard for “information and communications” under the authority of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act – a mouthful of a name and one that is almost always mangled in some way. (It’s the AODA, not the ADA.)

I applied for membership on this committee in 2006 and was turned down. Recently, the committee made hay of the fact that membership is now 50% people with disabilities. But, under the committee’s terms of reference, committee members must include “[p]ersons with disabilities or their representatives,” “[r]epresentatives of industries, sectors of the economy or classes of persons to which an accessibility standard applies,” people from the Ontario government, and “[o]ther persons or organizations the Minister considers advisable.” Expertise simply is not a criterion.

The current committee appears to contain representatives from 11 disability groups, including old standbys like the CNIB and CHS; a couple of “individuals,” also including old standbys like Sharlyn Ayotte, whose small business stands to benefit from increased accessibility; and not that many private-sector representatives at all. There seem to be too many government reps and too many people without obvious existing disability knowledge.

Nor does Talbot-Allan obviously have any such knowledge. She is apparently knowledgeable about running a government or public-sector committee. That may qualify her to chair the standards committee, but it does not qualify her to write the standard.

The result is a tad concerning. Minutes of meetings, to the extent that they’re even published, show the committee frankly wasting its time by watching demos of whiz-bang technology. In September 2007, the committee got a demo of two IBM products, one of which used a language inapplicable to Ontario (British Sign Language). The committee has to look to the future, but a demo from a corporation that, by no coincidence, is also a member of the committee borders on pointless. It also emphasizes high technology over actual accessibility.

The CNIB, with its ongoing history of error, is a member. The other members are apparently not adroit enough to correct for those errors, if the initial “draft” of the standard that I read is any indication. It took ages to document the numerous errors in that “draft” (itself an error-prone process – the version I have online now is the fourth full revision). Weeks after I posted my critique of the standard, the ministry sent me an E-mail asking if I had any comments to offer. These are the kind of people we’re dealing with here.

Because most committee members don’t know anything about accessible information, they’re making mistakes. Being disabled is no substitute for actual knowledge. Stated another way, being in a wheelchair (for example) does not qualify you to write a standard about information and communications.

I fear that the CNIB’s nonsense will be heeded and we’ll all be ordered to use 14-point Arial type in blue on a yellow background. PDFs will be banned, but Microsoft Word files will be encouraged. Every commercial Web site in Ontario will have to meet WCAG 2. Interior signage will need Braille labels despite the fact that almost nobody reads Braille and those who do are unaware the sign is mounted on the wall in the first place.

The stakes are high here: At some point in the future, if you do business in Ontario you will be required by law to follow this standard. It won’t be optional. And, the way things stand now, this slow-moving process, conducted in secret under the ægis of a chairperson with no discernible topic knowledge, is going to get them and us in a lot of trouble.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2008.04.27 16:15. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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None. I quit.

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