Bell Hit with Human Rights Complaint Over Accessibility in TV Services

Toronto-based lawyer David Lepofsky has filed a complaint against Bell with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, alleging that the telecom giant’s TV services lack accessibility features for blind customers — reports CTV News.

Specifically, the filing claims that Bell’s set-top boxes lack speech-reading technology that narrates aloud whatever text is on the screen at any given time to facilitate sight-impaired users. In his initial submission to the Commission in mid-2021, Lepofsky, who is blind, said he can’t access the television services he pays Bell for without help from a sighted person.

“This is a corporate giant with gazillions of dollars,” the lawyer 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 responses filed with the Commission, Bell acknowledged that its set-top boxes don’t include text-to-speech technology.

However, the company argued that it complies with Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) regulations — many of which only require TV service providers to offer described video, which is an audio track that plays over TV and movies and narrates visual aspects of what’s going on.

Unfortunately, Lepofsky said he and other blind users can’t access described video and similar features without the help of a sighted person in the first place since there’s no screen reader to help them navigate the menu.

Bell’s PVRs, which are required to access all features offered with Bell’s Fibe TV and satellite services, don’t have a built-in screen reader. In comparison, set-top boxes from rivals Rogers and Shaw are all screen reader compatible.

Lepofsky has long fought for disability rights in Canada. He was inducted into the Order of Canada in 1995. “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,” he said.

Through this complaint, Lepofsky is looking to encourage a legal requirement for TV service providers like Bell to offer screen-reading technology for their blind customers. However, the Human Rights Commission is yet to decide whether it will proceed with Lepofsky’s complaint.

Bell has shared a timeline with the Commission for implementing accessibility improvements in its offerings. The company has already met some of those deadlines, adding screen-reader compatibility to some of its apps and websites. Bell plans to make its streaming service, 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 Bell spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

If the Commission decides to proceed with the complaint against Bell, it could refer the case to mediation or conciliation, refer it directly to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal for litigation, or investigate the complaint further.