Peace and Environment News, May–June 2011
by Mike Buckthought
“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” — Tim Berners-Lee, World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Director and inventor of the World Wide Web.
On April 13, Council voted to eliminate the detailed minutes for standing committee meetings. The detailed minutes will be replaced by audio clips and brief action minutes. These will be uploaded to the city’s website, but many people will now be shut out of important debates at city hall.
What happens if someone can’t listen to audio clips? Text transcripts of the discussions are essential for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Cancelling the detailed minutes will make it difficult for many citizens to be involved in debates of important municipal issues.
When making its decision to eliminate the detailed minutes, Council failed to consider best practices for accessible websites.
Best practices for web design emphasize the importance of providing text alternatives for any non-text content. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 include a number of recommendations to ensure that websites are accessible.
For example, one Guideline states that all websites should include “text alternatives for any non-text content so that it can be changed into other forms people need, such as large print, braille, speech, symbols or simpler language.”
Eliminating the detailed minutes will create a barrier for many people who need text equivalents of audio information.
It’s also worth noting that the detailed minutes were used by many people who wished to search for relevant information, without wasting time listening to hours of discussions. Citizens, councillors and city staff relied on the minutes when researching key Council decisions.
Eliminating the detailed minutes will also create problems for people who do not have access to a high-speed Internet connection. People who cannot afford high-speed Internet access will find it difficult to listen to audio clips.
Responding to concerns about accessibility, Councillor Wilkinson introduced a motion to continue to provide detailed synopsis minutes. Unfortunately her motion was defeated, 7 to 12.
Voting in favour of providing detailed minutes: Councillors Deans, Fleury, Hobbs, Holmes, Monette, Taylor and Wilkinson.
Voting against continuing the detailed minutes: Mayor Watson and Councillors Blais, Chernushenko, Chiarelli, Desroches, El-Chantiry, Harder, Hume, Moffatt, Qadri, Thompson and Tierney.
The minutes included records of important votes. In the future, it remains to be seen if there will be detailed breakdowns of votes on motions. The action minutes might simply say “Carried” — leaving us to guess where councillors stood on a particular issue. The minutes are essential, if we care about transparency and open access to city government.
Cancelling the detailed minutes represents a serious setback for municipal democracy. It is astonishing that a tech-savvy city such as Ottawa would take such a step backwards, ignoring best practices for accessible websites.
The city should continue to provide detailed minutes for standing committee meetings, to ensure that all members of the public can continue to be engaged in discussing important municipal issues.
Mike Buckthought is an Ottawa writer and community activist.
Published in the Peace and Environment News, Volume 26, Number 3 — May–June 2011, page 8.