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Bell faces human rights complaint over alleged inaccessibility for blind customers

TORONTO — Bell Communications Inc. is facing a human rights complaint over allegations that it's failing to provide full service to its blind customers.
The Bell Canada logo is seen Tuesday, June 21, 2016 in Montreal. Bell Communications Inc. is facing a human rights complaint over allegations that it's failing to provide full service to its blind customers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

TORONTO — Bell Communications Inc. is facing a human rights complaint over allegations that it's failing to provide full service to its blind customers. 

The company's set-top boxes don't include the screen-reading technology that enables blind people to navigate through menus, use applications or discern what channel they're on, Toronto lawyer David Lepofsky alleges in submissions to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. 

In the initial submission filed in mid-2021, Lepofsky, who is blind, said he's not able to access the television services he pays for on his TV without the help of a sighted person. 

"This is a corporate giant with gazillions of dollars," Lepofsky said in an interview. "It's not like it's some small little business. The accommodation I'm seeking is one that all their competitors provide. This is an accommodation that U.S. law has required since 2016."

In its responses to the commission, Bell acknowledged that its set-top boxes don't have screen readers, but argued in its response to Lepofsky's complaint that it complies with CRTC regulations — many of which are related to the provision of described video, an audio track that plays over TV and movies and narrates visual aspects of the story.

The commission has yet to decide how it will proceed with Lepofsky's complaint. 

The lawyer has a long, storied history of advocating for disability rights and was inducted into the Order of Canada in 1995. 

He went on to fight a yearslong legal battle that led to a requirement that the Toronto Transit Commission announce stops on subways, streetcars and buses rather than just displaying them visually.

With this complaint against Bell, Lepofsky is seeking to entrench in law a requirement that TV service providers offer screen-reading technology for their blind customers.

"They can't possibly argue that they're entitled to refuse to provide it under the Human Rights Code because they have a duty to accommodate my blindness," Lepofsky said.

Screen readers use text-to-speech technology to read aloud the contents of a computer, phone or TV screen, whether those contents were pulled up by the system or inputted by the user. They come pre-installed in some pieces of technology — but not Bell's PVRs, which are required to access all the features provided with Bell's Fibe TV and satellite services. 

Both Rogers Communications Inc. and Shaw Communications Inc. said their set-top boxes are screen-reader compatible.

The lack of a screen reader on Bell's set-top boxes means the services Bell does provide to blind customers, such as described video, are not accessible to the very people they're meant to help, Lepofsky said. He can't navigate the menu to access that feature without the help of a sighted person.

His complaint argues that puts Lepofsky and other blind people at a disadvantage.

"Television and film are a key source of news and entertainment. They are also cultural touchpoints that are important to engage and participate in the community," it reads.

In outlining its efforts to make its products more accessible for blind customers, Bell also said it was making its mobile applications more screen reader friendly.

Lepofsky said he didn't receive any concrete commitments from Bell until he brought the complaint to the CHRC. 

In its response to the commission, the company laid out a timeline for implementing accessibility improvements. 

It's already met some of those deadlines by starting to integrate screen-reader compatibility into its apps and websites, including for Crave, the Bell-owned streaming service.

The company has also set a deadline to make Crave screen-reader compatible on "connected TV devices" by the first quarter of 2023.

"We were working on a number of accessibility improvements before Mr. Lepofsky filed his complaint, and we continue to work on providing a better experience for customers with disabilities regardless of the outcome of this case," a spokeswoman for Bell said in an emailed statement. 

She didn't say which improvements were already on the agenda.

A spokeswoman for the Canadian Human Rights Commission said it was legally prohibited from discussing whether it has received a complaint or discussing the specifics of a complaint. 

But if the commission decides to proceed with the complaint, it could refer the case to mediation or conciliation, refer it directly to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, or investigate the complaint further.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission said it's currently dealing with a high volume of discrimination complaints, with limited resources, so timelines are fluid.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 26, 2022.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press