Abstract

In 2000, 191 of the United Nations' member states adopted a number of goals to target major concerns to the global human family to be achieved by the year 2015. It was hoped that the Millennium Developmental Goals (MDGs) were to "foster collaborative action to reduce poverty, improve health and address educational and environmental concerns around the world's most pressing development problems" (United Nations, 2010). Yet, while the MDGs tackled a variety of crucial needs at the international level (including health, poverty, maternal health, environment, gender equality, child mortality and education). Unfortunately, they have not included the monitoring and evaluation of rights of persons with disabilities; a segment of the world population that is considered to be representing the largest minority in the world. Communication scholars (Thomas, 2005; Lee, 2008) have underscored the importance of "global advocacy" concerning extending communication rights to empower these groups. Nonetheless, it was argued, the communication rights movement has so far focused mainly on debates on issues such as media ownership, regulations within cultural industries, intellectual property rights and failed to prioritize the need to assert the rights of persons with disabilities. Along these lines, and adopting in underscoring the relationship between citizenship and disability rights, this paper aims to analyze, from a communication rights perspective, the significance of underscoring the need to "include" persons with disabilities to the enforcement and protection of their rights. Specifically, we examine the implementation of the 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Canada and Europe. Particularly it argues that while the Convention has certainly contributed to a re-emphasis of rights of persons with disabilities and had a positive and reformative effect on disability legislation and policy narratives in both the international and national spheres, it remains to be assessed to what extent its provisions will be translated into policy at a national and regional level. After all, such enforcement is related to a great extent to the social and cultural structure in a given society.


Communication as a citizenship right

Society not only continues to exist by transmission, by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication, there is more than a verbal tie between the words common, community, and communication. Men live in a community in virtue of the things which they have in common; and communication is the way in which they come to possess things in common. (Dakroury, 2009, emphasis in original)

As illustrated in the preceding statement by John Dewey, communication is not only central to human existence, but also to communities and societies. In fact, Jean d'Arcy, the father of the right to communicate, adopted a belief that human beings cannot live without communicating with each other. "Man has a specific, a biological need to communicate," he said, and therefore, communication is one of the basic human rights. This principle applies to entire societies: "All societies spring from the communication" between all members, and if someone were to be cut off from this communication, it would be "equivalent to annihilating" that society (d'Arcy, 1982). This perspective is timely and pertinent to the current cultural rights assertion that broadening the definition of communication means not only applying the rule to sending and receiving information but also to the establishment of "social understanding" in societies. Within this framework, d'Arcy's prophetic petition is certainly in line with current studies and debates of many communication rights and development scholars who have argued to include "communication" within the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a human right, one that has the potential to contribute to true participatory democracy.

The challenges with the media and Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) may concern both the use of the media themselves and their adaptation to various areas of life: politics (e.g. electronic voting), citizenship issues (e.g. e-governance services, electronic passports, online taxation), cultural life (TV subtitles, audio description of TV and theatre), instruction (reading material on electronic media), job opportunities, public life (trading via the Internet, websites, telephone communication), public transport (e.g. Information). However, one should equally highlight that as much as the emergence of ICT has brought about great potential for full inclusion of persons with disabilities, it can at the same time constitute potential new barriers when it comes to a variety of areas of life including political participation (e.g. e-voting), cultural life (e.g. subtitling of television broadcasts), public transport (e.g. Gaining information on times, changes and accessibility), citizenship (e.g. digital taxation programs) work (online job advertising) and public life in general (e.g. telephone communication, online discussions and trading). Waldschmidt (2009) has outlined various challenges posed by an ever growing technological environment: (1) increasing complexity of design of new products, (2) the fast pace at which new technologies evolve make the updating of assistive technologies for persons with disabilities more expensive or non-existent, (3) convergence challenges the effectiveness of regulation, (4) greater competition does not entail incentives to make accessibility a priority of companies, (5) an aging population will only aggravate the problem of providing equitable assistive technology delivery, (6) fewer resources in combination with an increase in needs require more cost-effective measures.

Research on communication rights has often focused on the position of minorities, since they are often in danger to be marginalized in the mainstream discourses and to a great extent excluded from "access" to the means of participation. According to figures provided by the United Nations before the adoption of the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006, more than 650 million persons (approximately 10% of the world's population) are persons with disabilities, "continued being denied their human rights and were kept on the margins of society in all parts of the world" (United Nations, 2006). Given the increasing importance of ICTs in modern societies, access to its infrastructure and services indeed is becoming a vital competence of citizenship (Bovens, 2002), from which people with disabilities must not be excluded. Also, recent electronic communication technologies might arguably bring about new opportunities to combat stereotypical representation, especially by enabling people with disability to become author and active contributors. The BBC's OUTCH! Website may be one of the positive examples in this regard (http://www.bbc.co.uk/ouch/). Bellamy argues, as cited in Hoffmann, 2010, that,

The demand for new rights of association, participation and access is part and parcel of the creation of new types of governance that supplement, cut across, occasionally subvert and supplant current systems of representative democracy. (page number?)

Within disability studies, there are two classic models: the medical and the social model (Priestley 2009). The first focuses on the individual, mostly on the body, as the locus of disability; the person is disabled. Particularly, it views disability as a medical condition that requires treatment and cure, a deficiency or defect that is unrelated to the social environment. The individual is "handicapped" and thus what obstructs her equal participation in society lies primarily in the individual who lacks certain capacities needed in order to live autonomously. Adaptation or at least maximum approximation for example by means of prostheses, to the norm is the aim of rehabilitation. While the medical model has been criticized for its "reductionist approach" to disability that assigns the "individual's physical, intellectual or mental conditions as the primary factor, the only point of departure", it remains "the most fundamental in a hierarchic order in relation to other perspectives" within disability research (Michailakis, 2007). In contrast, the second model of disability importantly refocuses the attention on the social environment in which disability is constructed on the basis of a notion of "normalcy" that tends to "other" those who defy it; where a person is being disabled by her surroundings. The latter perspective shows much similarity to that put forward in critical gender studies:

With the increasing political activities of organizations that promote disability rights during the 1970's an alternative perspective gained more prominence, which shifted the emphasis away from the individual to society's failures to remove social, political economic and environmental barriers that result in the exclusion of persons with disabilities and consequently deny them basic citizenship rights. At the same time, a disabled people's movement became a political force worldwide. (Barnes & Mercer, 2003)

The United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities

The UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) was the first human rights treaty in the new millennium and was also the most rapidly embraced one in the UN's history. It entered into force in May 2008 — today, 145 member states have signed the Convention and 87 have ratified it, while 89 have signed the Optional Protocol which enabled individuals to address breaches of the Convention through a competent body. It was not meant to create new human rights, but rather to specify the meaning of existing rights for the lives and needs of persons with disabilities. Yet, by making the implications of some rights more explicit and detailed and adapting them to the current situation, it has contributed to the explication and codification of rights which hitherto had been left open to interpretation. The Convention also contains provisions that specifically relate to communication. It includes provisions concerning stereotyped representation of persons with disabilities in the mass media in Article (8), on access to information technology and systems in Article (9), on access to information in article (21), as well as on television programs in Article (30).

Generally, it makes explicit a number of obligations of signatories to bring about the necessary conditions to ensure the exercise of the rights contained in the Convention. While Article (8) of the Convention explicitly states that state parties are required to take measures to raise awareness, including encouraging all media entities to portray persons with disabilities in a non-stereotypical manner, Article (9) explicitly refers to obligations of signatories to ensure the accessibility of ICTs while other articles imply action in the area of access to information (Article 21). While the Convention has certainly contributed to a re-emphasis of rights of persons with disabilities and had a positive and reformative effect on disability legislation and policy narratives in both the international and national spheres, it remains to be assessed to what extent its provisions will be translated into policy at a national and regional level. After all, such enforcement is related to a great extent to the social and cultural structure in a given society (Parker , 2006).

Historically, stereotypical portrayals that have long permeated popular culture and discriminatory practices against persons with disabilities have been widespread. Especially during the high tide of eugenics disability came to be seen as a sign of degeneration that ought to be eradicated, which was followed by the WWII period, in which individuals with a mental or physical disability were killed on a massive scale in Europe in order to keep bloodlines "pure" (Koch, 2001). While the victimization of persons with disabilities has not been adequately addressed in post-WWII treaties such as the Genocide Convention, the 1970's saw the emergence of large civil rights movements that sought to shift public understanding of and policy-making concerning disability away from the prevailing medical model and re-framed the issues in terms of civic rights. The 2006 Convention's main goal to establish and implement a progressive shift in understanding, portraying, and importantly empowering persons with disability with their respective rights and freedoms can be seen as the logical progression of this development. The Convention states its purpose explicitly in Article (1): "to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity" [emphasis added].

The Convention was a tool to direct attention and protective measures towards the less acknowledged rights of the disabled population. Yet, given that disability is not a state that is related to race, religion, or gender, some might regard it as being not a form of discrimination (United Nations, 2006). Because of that, in 1993, it was important for the United Nations to formulate an international legal document to address the needs of the previously discriminated population and under-represented populations (i.e. people with disability), a project that encountered various difficulties in terms of applying it at the international level (United Nations, 2008/09). Prior to the adoption of the Convention, people with disabilities were included under the section of "other" in the various treaties and United Nations declarations, which denotes the marginalization and negligence of the disabled peoples in the United Nations' agenda. Nonetheless, with the adoption of the 2006 Convention, signatory states were not only responsible for documenting the different aspects of disability discrimination, but importantly also, to develop legislation to "enforce" these rights for their citizens. As Parker emphasizes, "a stronger embodiment of social justice principles into human rights, domestic realization of international rights could be more effective in addressing the multiple sources of discrimination, inequality and injustice faced by a person with a disability" (2006). Since both Canada and the European Communities as such are signatories of this Convention, this article dissects the various legal and policy narratives enforcing the rights of people with disabilities, especially in terms of inclusion, and accessibility to means of communication technologies.

Policy Narratives: The European and Canadian Frameworks

Any "digital divide" implicitly signals a neglect of universalism in the provision of access … This especially impacts those who are already disadvantaged by economic and social status, and quite often both. (Ferrel Lowe, 2007)

The European Union and the Council of Europe

While the inequality in access to new ICTs has become a global concern, in the European Union democratic deficit discourse, worries about the "digital divide" are often coupled with the hopes expressed concerning the potentials of so-called eDemocracy (Tuzzi, Padovani & Nesti, 2007). Framed in a mostly economic rationale, however, in 2003, the so-called e-Europe initiative was launched in order to accelerate Europe's "transition towards a knowledge based economy and to realize the potential benefits of higher growth, more jobs and better access for all citizens to the new services of the information age" (https://www.cippguide.org/2012/03/13/eeurope-initiative/). The declaration of 2003 as the European "Year of People with Disabilities" aimed to raise public awareness, and provisions for equal opportunities have come to the forefront of EU initiatives; at the same time, there also seems to be a trend of "mainstreaming" disability in policy documents. This has also been mirrored in the 2003 Communication by the Commission on "Establishing Equal Opportunities for people with disabilities: A European Action Plan (COM/2003/650) which defined three pillars for action: (1) legislation, (2) improving accessibility for all and (3) mainstreaming disability issues in relevant community policies and processes.

In the framework of a renewed Lisbon strategy for economic growth and employment, e-Europe was followed up in 2005 by the i2010 program, which aims at creating a Single European Information Space, strengthening investment and innovation in ICT research and, lastly, supporting inclusion, better public services and quality of life through the use of ICT. Despite a broader approach, the primary aim of the program remains an economic one, illustrated by the Commission's calculation that "benefits from e Inclusion in the EU could be in the order of €35 to €85 billion over five years". Nonetheless, the stated objective of promoting e-Inclusion is a shift toward "a social necessity into a significant economic opportunity for Europe" (Commission of the European Communities, 2007a).

In this context, a number of benchmarks have been set (i2010 High Level Group, 2006) which have led to an increased effort to monitor a number of key indicators to measure developments. Already in 2005, the Commission had published a Communication on e-accessibility (Commission of the European Communities, 2005) and stressed the need to make many types of products based on ICT easier to use. In 2006, a conference was held in Riga. On the basis of data available at that point, it was clear there were a number of problems when it came to inclusion. For instance, according to the European Commission, 57% of individuals living in the EU did not regularly use the Internet in 2005; and only 3% of public websites surveyed complied with the minimum web accessibility standards and guidelines, hindering access to web content and services for people with disabilities who comprise some 15% of the EU population (Commission of the European Communities, 2007b). e-Inclusion was defined in a 2007 Commission Staff Working Document, as "the extent to which information and communication technologies help to equalize and promote participation in society at all levels by enhancing social relationships, facilitating economic opportunities for work and entrepreneurship, developing cultural aspects of society, encouraging civic participation" (Commission of the European Communities, 2007a, p. 3). Targets for what has been dubbed e-Inclusion were subsequently set in a Ministerial Declaration at the end of the Riga conference and EU Member States committed to halve by 2010 the gap in Internet usage by groups at risk of exclusion, such as the elderly, people with disabilities, women, rural populations, lower education groups, "less-developed" regions and unemployed persons. Yet, in 2007, still only 5% of public websites and fewer than 3% of private website in the EU were found to provide "full accessibility" (Cullen, Kubitschke & Meyer, 2007). In addition, subtitled audio-visual programming varies considerably (2.5% to 95%) among Member States with figures between 1% to over 10% when it comes to broadcasting with audio description (Commission of the European Communities, 2007b).

In 2007, the Commission presented renewed efforts to bring about e-Inclusion and published its first report on progress (Commission of the European Communities, 2007b). A Disparity Index was developed to measure the gap between ICT usage of the average population and vulnerable groups. Also factors beyond physical access to infrastructure that can impact actual usage and barriers to access such as digital literacy have been addressed. Overall the report suggests that the objectives set out in the Riga Declaration are unlikely to be met by 2010 (Commission of the European Communities, 2007b). On the other hand, during the 2008 mid-term review of the i2010 initiative it was highlighted that 2007 had been the first year in which more than half of the EU population regularly used the Internet (Commission of the European Communities, 2008). Still, a staggering 40% of the EU population has never used the Internet (Ibid). While average Internet use by citizens living in rural areas, women and the middle aged is already close to the EU average (and the relatively small difference has declined since 2005), the continuing disparities between the overall population and those aged 65-74, the retired and economically inactive, and those with low education are again pointed out as a major concern (Ibid). Furthermore, following up on the 2005 Communication on e-accessibility, a special report was drawn up "Measuring Progress of eAccessibility in Europe", specifically focusing on the needs of people with disabilities (Cullen, Kubitschke & Meyer, 2007). Also here, only limited progress has been made. The EU lags behind when compared to countries such as the US, Canada or Australia when it comes to policy-making on this issue, which is fragmented and very different in Member States. In 2008, the research team did not find any change. No newer data has been made available.

At the end of 2008, the Commission conducted a public consultation concerning further measures and adopted another measure, "Towards an accessible information society", in which it inter alia suggested including accessibility demands in public procurement and the establishment of a EU high-level group of experts to guide a process of a common European approach to e-Accessibility (Commission of the European Communities, 2008b). Notably, the document emphasized the need to broaden the scope of efforts to include also services such as digital television, electronic communications as well as electronic banking services. The European Disability Forum (EDF), together with consumer organization ANEC and the European Older People's Platform, have however expressed their disappointment about the lack of ambition of the proposed initiatives (AGE/ANEC/EDF, 2009). Nonetheless, efforts continue to be made when it comes to standardizing accessibility of public ICT procurements by means of the so-called Public Procurement Directive which specifically includes references to the use of "Design for All" and accessibility requirements to be included in contracts for public bids, whenever possible. In 2005, Standardization Mandate 376 was declared by the European Commission to the European Standardisation Organisations to develop a standard for the accessibility of software and electronic services that are purchased by public authorities and the so-called Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 have been adopted which may become the basis for future legislation on e-Accessibility at EU level in the form of a Directive.

This may counter the present fragmentation in implementation at the national level. It remains questionable, however, if such regulation could also be applied to private websites that provide basic services for the public and services of general interest and intranets as it has been demanded by user organizations such as the EDF (Expert meeting on web accessibility in Europe and the implementation of WCAG 2.0, 2009). Also, WCAG 2.0 is limited to web content and does not include standards for hardware, while the need to develop authoring tools that could enable people with disabilities to contribute to web 2.0 services will have to be stimulated in the future if a yet further exclusion is to be avoided. Concerning the latter, another set of guidelines has been adopted with the WAI Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines.

In the late 1990s, European competence was broadened to provide a legal basis to address discrimination on the basis of disability. Nonetheless, this opportunity has so far not been used to its full potential when it comes to communication. Even though Article (13) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) gives a legal basis for measures against discrimination, until 2007 this had only been done by means of Directives to address employment equality. Furthermore, while specific targets have been set in the 2006 Action Plan, enforcement relies on non-binding coordination. As Priestley emphasized, however, while a European Constitution is not ratified a more far-reaching legal measure will depend on consensus and thus a Disability Directive may be a rather "optimistic ambition" (2007). In 2008, however, a more general Directive has been proposed on implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation, which would set out a broader non-discrimination framework beyond the arena of employment.

When it comes to communication specifically, in 2007, the major instrument concerning transfrontier broadcasting, the Television Without Frontiers Directive, was revised in order to answer to the requirements of convergence. The Directive must be translated into domestic law of the Member States by the end of 2009. It is now called the Audiovisual Media Services Directive and contains provisions concerning the accessibility of programmes for persons with visual and auditory disabilities (Article 3-c) as well as on the incitement to hate crimes based on disability (Article 3-e). Member States are required to encourage media service providers under their jurisdiction to make their services more accessible, for example by means of subtitling or audio description. In its preamble (Recital 64) it explicitly recognized that

[the] right of persons with a disability and of the elderly to participate and be integrated in the social and cultural life of the Community is inextricably linked to the provision of accessible audiovisual media services. The means to achieve accessibility should include, but need not be limited to, sign language, subtitling, audio-description and easily understandable menu navigation.

More specifically, Article 3-c requires Member States to encourage media service providers under their jurisdiction to ensure that their services are gradually made accessible to people with a visual or hearing disability, whereas Article 3-e (1) (c) (ii) obliges Member States to ensure that "audiovisual commercial communications shall not include or promote any discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, nationality, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation". Also the review of the so-called Telecoms Package, which inter alia includes the Directive of Universal Service and Users' Rights, entailed issues of relevance for individuals with disabilities with regard to usability and access. Four Directives that address disability issues within the context of new technologies are:

  • Directive 1995/5/EC on radio equipment and telecommunications terminal equipment and the mutual recognition of their conformity
  • Directive 2002/21/EC on a common regulatory framework for electronic communications networks and services (Framework Directive)
  • Directive 2002/22/EC on universal service and users' rights relating to electronic communications networks and services (Universal Services Directive)
  • Directive 2007/65/EC (amending Council Directive 89/552/EEC) on the coordination of certain provisions laid down by law, regulation or administrative action in Member States concerning the pursuit of television broadcasting activities

Yet, effective access by users with disabilities remains limited. When it comes to eAccessibility measures national implementation seems to lack behind and remains fragmented (Cullen, Kubitschke & Meyer, 2007). Looking at the numbers, the issue of eAccessibility in Europe is indeed rather enormous (Ibid): 1 in 5 of the working age population may be in need of the eAccessibility provision in order to be able to effectively use ICTs while up to 60% would benefit from such provisions. They also point to an aging population is predicted to be increased by 2050 to be 46 million European aged 50 or more with disabilities that pose direct challenges to eAccessibility. This proportion is likely to rise given the demographic developments and an aging population. Given that in 2010 the previous Action Plan will phase out, in mid-2010 the Commission is expected to propose a new European Disability Strategy to run from 2010 to 2020 with a mid-term review for the 27 heads of states to endorse.

In sum, during the past years, European policy-making concerning disability issues has been transformed from a "formerly disregarded branch of traditional social policy into a modern policy formation which comprises not only social protection and labour market integration, but also equal rights and non-discrimination" (Waldschmidt, 2009). The overall aim within this broad policy field then is to guarantee equal opportunities, inclusion and participation, merging the traditional goals of social policy and non-discrimination policy, with disability covered by equal rights legislation of the EU. Nonetheless, it should be noted that until now, the EU has adopted only non-binding instruments when it comes to e-Accessibility (Commission Communications in 2002, 2005 and 2007; a European Parliament and Council resolutions on e-2002: accessibility of public websites and their content in 2003 and the Riga Declaration of 2006). In 2001, the Committee of Ministers passed Resolution ResAP (2001)3 "Towards full citizenship of persons with disabilities through inclusive new technologies" in which it had called for the establishing of national strategies to "to ensure that persons with disabilities benefit from the opportunities of new technologies, to avoid the risk of exclusion and to evaluate the impact of new technologies on the quality of life of persons with disabilities". In 2002, a European Congress on Disability was held in Madrid in preparation of the European Year of People with Disabilities. Subsequently, in 2003, Recommendation 1592 of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe called on the mass media to raise awareness to induce changes in attitudes (recital 6) and vowed to undertake efforts to ensure accessibility of its own websites and other information materials (recital 11-i).

On 7 April 2006, the Committee of Ministers adopted a recommendation addressed to all 46 member states on the Council of Europe: the "Action Plan to promote the rights and full participation in society of people with disabilities: improving the quality of life of people with disabilities in Europe 2006-2015" (Recommendation (2006-5). Meant as a policy tool to further the implementation of the UN Convention, the recommendation contains 15 action lines, one of which comprises Information and Communication. The Recommendation clearly frames the issue in terms of established human rights, stating as one of its core objectives to "ensure that people with disabilities can seek, receive and impart information on an equal footing with other members of society". Specifically, it urges member states to take a number of measures including making their own information accessible to all, to encourage the elaboration and implementation of accessibility standards, to include these standards when contracting third parties, to encourage the development of affordable assistive technologies and to foster the application of universal design principles.

The concept of universal design, which had been introduced in 2007 by Resolution ResAP (2007)3, aims at making the design and composition of different environments and services accessible, usable and comprehensible to all users in a way that it will need as little adaptation or special assistance as possible. The recommendation stresses the need to pick up potential accessibility problems at the stage of development of new technologies rather than after the fact, a need that is again put forward to be promoted more heavily. It also acknowledges the potential as well as obstacles that the evolution of new technologies can bring for people with disabilities. Partly in order to prevent "missing the boat with one technology", the need of mainstreaming disability policies is emphasized especially when it comes to media policy. In a corresponding Resolution 1642(2009), the Parliamentary Assembly welcomes the Action Plan, but points out that despite "numerous declarations of intent" many inequalities persist and explicitly calls on member states to ensure "full access to the media for disabled people, including printed and electronic media and the Internet" (recital 16) and for more research to explore the potentials of new technologies to improve inclusion. Notably, it considers "prejudice and fixed mindsets" the main obstacle that prevents access to rights for people with disabilities and calls a member states to take action. A mid-term review conference to monitor implementation of the Action Plan is due to take place in 2010.

Until 2006, a "partial agreement" with a limited number of member states had guided Council of Europe disability policy. The 2006 Recommendation represents a milestone to the extent that now, all 46 member states of the Council of Europe are expected to make explicit policies that specifically aim at enforcing inclusion of persons with disabilities. Furthermore, the text of the recommendation constitutes a clear choice for the social model of disability that approaches accessibility in terms of citizenship rights, "from patient to citizen" (see 2.2. of Recommendation (2006-5). Importantly, it also recognizes a number of "cross cutting aspects" which may amplify discrimination, such as the intersection between disability and gender, ethnicity or age.

Viewed in this manner, awareness of disability rights within Canada has been somewhat different than the European experience. The latter took more the form of both legislative frameworks and policy initiatives to enable people with disabilities with communication rights in a more general sense. Yet, as will be seen in the following section, the Canadian framework is rather in its infancy stage to "enact" legislative understanding to more concrete policy procedures in the recent years and in the light of the 2006 UN Convention.

The Canadian Legislation Framework of Disability Rights

The history of disability rights awareness in Canada emerged initially during the 1970s, a period during which, multiple voices claimed for social and legal changes in aspects of people with disability. Such awareness highlighted basically the relationship between citizenship rights and the concept of equality for many physically and mentally disabled Canadians. Strong tides have affected the Canadian awareness of disabled people during this time frame, among them: the Canadian Human Rights Act, the American Disability Rights Movement; the formation of the Coalition of Provincial Organizations of the Handicapped (COPOH), as well as the UN International Year of Disabled Persons which is mandated "to promote the human rights of disabled people through full participation, equalisation of opportunities and development (Priestly, 2001). Of particular importance is the Canadian Human Rights Act which passed in 1976-77 underscoring disability as one of the "prohibited grounds of discrimination", as its Section 3(1) clearly states:

For all purposes of this Act, the prohibited grounds of discrimination are race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability and conviction for which a pardon has been granted. (Canada Department of Justice, R.S.C., 1985, c. H-6)

Another important progenitor of the Canadian legislation enforcement of disability rights is the United Nations' Special Committee on the Disabled and the Handicapped published report 1981 (known as the Obstacles Report) that coincided the drafting on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (La Charte canadienne des droits et libertés) that entered in force in 17 April 1982. The Charter, on a Federal level, guarantees certain political and civil equality rights for Canadian citizens (or residents living in Canada) asserting a group of prohibited grounds of discrimination:

Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability. (The Charter, 1982, Section 15-a)

Section(15) is key to the enforcement of equality rights, as it aims, according to the Canadian Supreme Court, to prevent the "violation of essential human dignity and freedom through the imposition of disadvantage, stereotyping, or political and social prejudices, and to promote a society in which all persons enjoy equal recognition at law as human beings or as members of Canadian society, equally capable and equally deserving of concern, respect and consideration" (Hogg, 2003). The Charter is complemented by other provincial grounds such as the Ontario Human Rights Code that recognizes the dignity and worth of every person in Ontario in all aspects of life, such as employment, housing, facilities and services, contracts, and membership in unions, trade or professional associations. Applying this understanding to the Canadian communications policy, the concept of "universal access" to communications at affordable rates might be seen, then, as one of the main goals of communications public policy during the late 1960s and early 1970s, under the Liberal government, especially that of Pierre Trudeau.

Yet, as much as Section (15) of the Charter underscores the centrality of the notion of "equality" within the Canadian legislations, efforts are still needed to apply such legal narratives into actual policies in order to "enact" the protection of people with disabilities. Evidently, researchers generally confirmed various discriminatory practices against persons with disabilities in Canada, among them Armstrong, who summarizes such discrimination in a statement worth quoting in length:

Most Canadians would be surprised and outraged if a person were denied a bus seat because he was Black. Similarly, most would find it repulsive if an educational institution refused to admit a new student solely because the student was a woman. Yet our society does not exhibit the same sense of moral indignation or shock if a person who uses a wheelchair is denied access to public transportation because of steps or if a person who is blind is denied the benefits of a particular academic program because the materials for that program are not provided in Braille (Armstrong, 2003).

As well, recent encounters in assessing the Canadian attempts to enforce these legal languages, argued that "Canadians with disabilities are absent citizens. [As] they confront persistent barriers to participation … [such state would indeed make then] … effectively absent, lacking full enjoyment of liberty of the person, or freedom of expression and communication" (Prince, 2009). Examples of exclusionary practices according to Statistics Canada (2002 and 2007) are the struggle to participate in various communicative settings such as voting, being a campaign worker, candidate, or elected representatives involving more than 2 million Canadians with different degrees of disabilities (Prince, 2009).

In this regard, one of the most pertinent examples is the case of Eldridge V. B.C. Attorney General in 1997 where 3 disabled Canadians appealed for their rights to equal accommodation in communication. The appellants of this case, Robin Susan Eldridge, John Henry Warren and Linda Jane Warren, were deaf using only sign language, and receiving the needed interpretation services free of charge until 1990 from the Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (WIDHH) funded by the British Columbia government when visiting their doctors. After cancelling the governmental funds, the WIDHH was not able to provide this interpretation service to the appellants anymore. Problematically, and upon appealing to the British Columbia court, Attorney General of British Colombia ruled in 1992 that "the Charter does not require governments to implement programs to assist disabled persons" (Tate, 2001). In reaction, another appeal was sent to the Supreme Court in which Justice La Forest, ruled concluding that:

For many hearing persons, the dominant perception of deafness is one of silence. This perception has perpetuated ignorance of the needs of deaf persons and has resulted in a society that is for the most part organized as though everyone can hear … Not surprisingly, therefore, the disadvantage experienced by deaf persons derives largely from barriers to communication with the hearing population (Jackman, 1998).

And hence it was seen that failure of providing this type of communication accommodation denied the equal benefits of rights as stated in Article (15) of the Charter for all Canadians. The issue becomes far more important if we look at the recent statistics showing that "one in seven Canadians reported living with a disability, which is 4.4 million Canadians or 14.3 per cent of the population" (Reaume, 2008). Although this is an alarming figure, when the results of the 2006 national census were released, researchers were relieved that at least researchers started to uncover the problems, and showed that there is "greater awareness and reduced stigma surrounding self-identifying and reporting disabilities" (Ibid). Focusing on communication rights for people with disabilities, and according to the Canadian broadcasting regulator, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), it is key that the Canadian broadcasting system and telecommunications industry promote equality in the access of means of communication, as well as enforcing the accurate representation of people with disabilities. The latter point has been squarely asserted on provincial level in section (6-1a & b) of the New Brunswick Human Rights Act (1971, c.8, s.1; 1985, c.30, s.3) that stated the legal obligation of the broadcaster to eliminate discrimination of disabled people:

No person shall … (a) publish, display, or cause to be published or displayed, or(b) permit to be published or displayed on lands or premises, in a newspaper, through a television or radio broadcasting station, or by means of any other medium that he owns or controls, any notice, sign, symbol, emblem or other representation indicating discrimination or an intention to discriminate against any person or class of persons for any purpose because of … physical disability, mental disability … (New Brunswick Human Rights Code, 1971).

On the Federal level, the CRTC regulates all broadcasting and telecommunications activities in Canada as per the Broadcasting Act of 1991, that bounds all operating broadcasting agencies (public and private) to its Section (3-p) that asserts: "programming accessible by disabled persons should be provided within the Canadian broadcasting system as resources become available for the purpose" (Broadcasting Act, 1991). It is important to mention here that the CRTC's decisions as per the Broadcasting Act are enforceable exactly like a court order as per Section (13-1) of the Act. In 2000, CRTC ruled in favour of a request submitted by the National Broadcast Reading Service Inc. (NBRS) to provide "VoicePrint" [an English-language audio network that provides programming of particular benefit to Canadians who are blind, visually impaired or print handicapped] to a number of cable systems across Canada It concluded in its decision that: "Approval of this application is in keeping with the objectives of the Canadian broadcasting policy as described in section 3(1)(p) of the Act" (Italics in original, CRTC Decision 2000-380). Although there is no direct reference in Section (3-1d) of the Broadcasting Act 1991 to bind the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) particularly, as the public service broadcaster in Canada, to provide directly services to "people with disability", yet, it states its responsibility to provide programming so to "safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada" (Broadcasting Act, 1991): A statement that applies for all segments of Canadians including people with disabilities. As for the privately owned media, the CRTC in public notices, interventions, and decisions squarely emphasized the importance of accommodating people with disabilities in renewing licenses of privately-owned English language television stations as well. Furthermore, the CRTC noted after receiving various interventions from consumers and interest groups (British Columbia Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) on behalf of the Canadian Disability Rights Council, the Greater Vancouver Association of the Deaf, and the British Columbia Chapter of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association), that failure of television stations to provide captioning for deaf and hard of hearing Canadians is considered to be discriminatory under section (15) of the Charter. It specifically argued that "television has become an essential tool in the robust debate and free exchange of ideas that nourish a democratic society. When deaf and hard-of-hearing persons, most of whom are unable to hear radio broadcasts, are also unable to receive television broadcasts in a form that is comprehensible to them, they are largely cut off from this essential aspect of citizenship "(Public Notice CRTC 1995-48). For that, it was requested by disability rights' interest and advocacy groups that 100% closed captioning condition must be imposed on all television broadcasters in order to renew their licenses. In response, the CRTC suggested that that 90% is a more realistic figure (given that some of the material cannot be captioned since they are not in French or English for example) and broadcasters should be required to achieve that target by the end of their seven-year licence terms (Ibid). As well, the Canadian Telecommunications Act (1993), asserted in its section (27-2), that "2) No Canadian carrier shall, in relation to the provision of a telecommunications service or the charging of a rate for it, unjustly discriminate or give an undue or unreasonable preference toward any person, including itself, or subject any person to an undue or unreasonable disadvantage" (Telecommunications Act, 1993, c. 38). Interestingly, the CRTC has concluded in its decision (CRTC 2004-47) that Bell Canada and other telecommunications providers in Canada "unjustly discriminating" deaf consumers in its provision of pay telephone, finding that this action is contradicting section (27-2) of the Telecommunications Act directing Bell Canada et al. to "implement a teletypewriter upgrade program for certain pay telephones" (14 July 2004).

Discrimination against people with disabilities includes other crucial "indirect" practices that occupied various discussions and debates in Canada in the last few years. One of the important initiatives to uncover these practices is the CRTC's call for a Task Force on cultural diversity on television in 2002. The final report of the task force, submitted by Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB): Reflecting Canadians: Best Practices for Cultural Diversity on Television (2004) directly underscores the challenges facing four different groups in Canada; women, visible minority groups, aboriginal peoples, and persons with disabilities. The report, however, identified the last two groups as rarely visible on-air; for this reason, CRTC comments in its Public Notice (CRTC 2006-77) that it "expects licensees to ensure that the on-air presence of members of each of the four designated groups is reflective of Canadian society, and that members of these groups are presented fairly, accurately and in a manner that is non-stereotypical" (CRTC, 19 June 2006).

Along the same lines, and as part of its action plan, CAB concluded in its final report submitted later to the CRTC, The Presence, Portrayal and Participation of Persons with Disabilities in Television Programming (2005), that there are major mis-representation and negative stereotyping against people with disabilities in Canada, for example: the negative attitudes and misperceptions of persons with disabilities, lack of participation (employment) in the industry of persons with disabilities, inaccurate coverage of disability issues in news, information and dramatic programming, use of inappropriate language regarding persons with disabilities in news and information programming, and importantly, the lack of communication and outreach programs between broadcasting industry and disability community (CAB, 16 September 2005). As a result, CAB submitted an amendment of the "Sex-Role Portrayal Code" (CRTC, Public Notice 1990-99), to be the "equitable portrayal code" ensuring the positive equitable portrayal of persons with disabilities in all television and radio programming. More recently, the government of Ontario adopted the 2005 Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act that offered a broader account of accommodating people with disabilities within various contexts, among them enabling disabled Ontarians with means of accessibility of information (Government of Ontario, 2005).

Another pertinent example of the need to apply various legislations to create concrete policies to enable accessibility to people with disabilities is the final report prepared by the Canadian Task Force on Access to Information for Print-Disabled Canadians: "Fulfilling the Promise" (2000). Throughout the report, a clear call for action to accommodate more than 3 million Canadians with print disabilities. Examples of recommendations have included, 1) providing additional funding to the National Library of Canada so to provide services for the disabled people at no cost; 2) the government should encourage booksellers, libraries, publishers, educators, and the public to support literacy programs for the print-disabled Canadians; and importantly, 3) ensuring that the Canadian authored titles are available for printing on demands especially for the e-books that have a copyright protection, among other recommendations such as providing large print, audio, Braille and/or e-texts (The Council on Access to Information for Print-Disabled Canadians, 2000).

Collectively, research on communication rights has often focused on the position of minorities, since they are often in danger to be marginalized in the mainstream discourse and to a great extent excluded from "access" to the means of participation. However, scholars showed that the ambiguity of the Canadian regulatory system as well as the communications public policy have favored the primacy of the market economy as the "public service" ideal, justifying this position as a defense for cultural and national sovereignty. Raboy pointed out the failure of Canadian communications policy to adopt socio-cultural ideals such as the right to communicate as a result of a series of problems: 1) a "strategic retreat from criticism of the limits of administrative broadcasting"; 2) "blindness to the repressive potential of broadcasting when used as a national policy instrument"; and 3) the "co-optation by entrepreneurs of positive sentiment towards local cultures" (1990). Nonetheless, the Canadian Federal government, instead of acting in defense of the public interest, has intentionally organized and enabled non-public actors to play the central role in the public policy system. Historically, the state favored industry, business, and technology, as opposed to social ideas like the right to communicate, universal access, and public participation, among others. Dominant public policy ideology stressed the market economy as determining the social relations in Canadian society. Furthermore, Raboy adds, the problem lay in "the lack of durability of prominent alternative strategies for social change" (1990).

The imbalance of communication in regards to the e-inclusion and e-accessibility in Canada is such an important topic that many concerns have been raised by advocacy groups, such as the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, which raised the fact that telephones and televisions are essential forms of communication that allow us to work, go to school, call for help in an emergency, and participate in community life. However, many people with disabilities cannot participate in these activities because telephones and TV programming are not accessible to them. In one of its report titled "From "lunatics" to citizens: tracing the emergence and growth of disability politics in Ontario", it was hoped that Canadians with disabilities would living in a "fully inclusive society", hoping for "countless more doors to open, profound institutional changes to occur, and public spending to be reallocated so that people with disabilities can participate fully and with the dignity to which they are entitled" (Valentine, 2006).

The same point was raised in the Canadian Federal report Unison: A Canadian Approach to Disability Issues (1997), where it argued that the Canadian government policies have shifted to view people with disabilities from merely passive to active participants. Importantly, such shift has also been extended from considering the government as merely the main key player in this discussion, to commit the whole society to a "shared responsibility" with regards to the social services in Canada. Evidently, upon reviewing the different types of collision building promoted by disability groups in Canada, Prince concluded that one of the important features is building communication networks where people with disabilities shared and exchanged information on ideas or interest (2009). Collectively, and as seen, there are several legal documents within Canadian regulations pertained to the equality rights for people with disabilities, especially in regards to telecommunications in the recent years. Yet, more efforts should be dedicated to analyze the policy narratives and more particularly, the translation of these regulations into a concrete policy formats binding all parties involved in communications to fulfill concrete requirements to enable equal access for Canadian disabled population.

Disability rights between the legal discourses and policy narratives

For centuries, people with disabilities have been made the "dustbins of disavowal" (Shakespeare, 1994) by negative, paternalizing, voyeuristic and often dehumanizing cultural representations. Consistent depiction of disability versus normalcy has affected the shared cultural conscience and has even often been internalized by persons with disabilities themselves. Much like in the case of women, people with disabilities have had to deconstruct — and are still in the process of doing so — the processes of "othering" them and to argue for the recognition of their human and citizenship rights. It is argued that "society creates a handicap when it fails to accommodate the diversity of all its members" (Priestly, 2001). Within the past forty years, major steps have been taken to counter prejudice and stereotypes in public communication, while access to the media, including new technologies; have gradually become recognized as citizenship rights. Generally, disability policy in Europe is a reflection of dramatic changes in attitudes and approaches to disability as a result of a more international disability movement. The same is applicable to the Canadian experience where number of initiatives have been taken to create a more "inclusive" social, cultural, and communication environment for people with disabilities. Yet, one cannot deny that such policies have developed away from prioritizing care and rehabilitation to human rights, citizenship and participation (Priestley, 2007).

The social model of disability is visible as a dominant frame of reference in current legislation and policy initiatives at both the Canadian and the European context. Accessibility of modern information and communication technology is firmly framed in a citizenship discourse and increasingly approached from a rights-based perspective. The ratification of the 2006 UN Convention has triggered a great amount of new initiatives at the European level — within the EU as well as the CoE — and provided a common language and framework within which issues are being addressed. This will inter alia mean that the EU, as a supranational actor, will assume more responsibilities of measuring and monitoring, which is a vital step in effective policy formulation, as well as mainstreaming disability issues in policy. The Commission will function as the focal point when it comes to the implementation of the EU's commitments under the Convention. It is expected to publish a Code of Conduct to stipulate more detailed procedures under its upcoming European Disability Strategy 2010-2020 (Commission of the European Communities, 2010).

Similarly, Canadian broadcaster regulator, CRTC ruled in 2009 all telecommunications service providers to provide a new service "internet Protocol Relay Service" to accommodate people with disabilities in the age of information technologies. Namely, this means improving the 991 services to include text messaging; offering at least one type of wireless mobile handset for disabled consumers; improving the quality of closed-captioning formats on TV screens; and importantly, commit all French-language broadcaster to the same requirements of services exactly like the English-broadcasters (CRTC decision, 2009-430). Yet, we are still far removed from disability mainstreaming in such policies. While eAccessibility has become a relatively high priority on the both the EU and Canadian policy agendas in terms as social inclusion as well as economic competitiveness, the development of concrete measures is still in its early stages. A common strategy that would comprise all areas of communication formats is still not implemented consistently. One plausible solution is enhancing the coordination of civil society organizations, such as the European Disability Forum who called for encouraging the market to make products and services more accessible for people with disabilities. (See Cullen, Kubitschke, Mc Daid, Blanck, Myhill, Quinn, O'Donoghue & Halverson, 2008; Cullen & Kubitschke, 2008). Within Canada, similar initiatives have been launched by the government to respond to civil society call to engage in the policy development process of accessibility for disabled people, such as the Disability Information Technologies Research Alliance (www.dis-it.ca) that aims to "increase the quality of life and inclusion of Canadians with disabilities in the knowledge-driven new economy" (2003-2007). Other governmental initiatives follow the same line, such as, the Persons with Disabilities Online site for the Government of Canada (www.pwd-online.ca) and the Disability Web Links site (www.disabilityweblinks.ca) that supplies information about federal, provincial, and territorial programs of interest to persons with disabilities. In its 2010 Information Note on progress in implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Commission emphasized that, mainstreaming would be a central objective of the new Disability Strategy. This could also help stipulate measurable objectives to be included into the follow-up of the Lisbon Strategy, which are urgently needed. This lack of systematic and comparable data is especially apparent at the EU level, under whose competence many of the articles of the Convention fall, and has yet to be remedies (Commission of the European Communities, 2010).

In conclusion, using both European and Canadian frameworks, the paper argues that there are a number of persisting obstacles to full inclusion: (1) existing legislation is either restrictive in scope or lacks compulsory obligations, (2) the implementation of legislative measures has had limited effect in practice when it comes to eAccessibility, while high costs connected to seeking legal remedies that prevent many disabled users from enforcing the rights they already enjoy, at least formally (3) necessary statistical data to monitor progress are not available (4) there is fragmentation in implementation adoption of standards such as WCAG 2.0 between countries. Within the Canadian context, despite many initiatives toward empowering people with disabilities with their basic rights, according to the various legislations in both federal and provincial levels, one has to highlight that some opinions still maintain that the Canadian government has never taken a pro-active, systematic approach to ensuring that telephone and other telecommunications equipment and services are accessible to people with disabilities. An argument has been made that, the CRTC, for example, has dealt with accessibility in a narrow piecemeal fashion, and usually only in response to complaints from advocacy organizations and individuals with disabilities dealing with message relay services; billing in alternate/accessible formats; long distance discounts for TTY users; and accessible pay phones. Yet, as seen in the previous analysis of the different policies, there has been a strong tide to change these understandings of people with disabilities in the last few years (especially after the adoption of the UN Convention). Moreover, it is also important to take into consideration that such policies should be implemented on a federal scale, as some Canadian provinces have a great improvement in accommodating persons with disabilities in their own provincial legislations. Yet, in order to empower persons with disabilities, such mandates should be implemented throughout the provinces and on a federal scale.

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Author note: An earlier version of this paper was presented as a part of the "Disability rights" round table in the IAMCR 28th Annual Conference, July 18-22, 2010, Braga (Portugal): Communication and Citizenship: Rethinking Crisis and Change.

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