IASR Standards: Your Essential Guide to Accessibility Compliance in Ontario, Canada

This article provides a clear and comprehensive overview of Ontario, Canada's Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation (IASR) and its impact on digital accessibility. It explains the purpose of IASR compliance, the IASR’s objectives and its place in Canadian law under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). Also discussed: the disabilities the IASR addresses, and the potential consequences of noncompliance, and the sectors most affected by the IASR. It outlines the consequences of non-compliance, and offers guidance on testing for IASR compliance, and improving web accessibility in conformance with the WCAG for Ontario, Canada and beyond.


A Brief Introduction to the IASR

In today's interconnected world, websites and digital platforms have become essential tools for communication, commerce, and education. However, for people with disabilities, these same platforms can pose significant barriers if not designed with accessibility in mind. The Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation (IASR), introduced in Ontario, Canada, aims to address this issue by establishing clear guidelines for governmental and private sector organizations to design, develop, test, and maintain websites, web applications, and electronic or technical and communications related goods and services that are accessible to all. 


diverse group of people using various digital devices
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True North: The Moral Compass Points Towards Inclusion

Ontario, the second-largest province in Canada in both size and population, is a place of great natural beauty and cultural diversity. Its serene vistas include vast forests, rolling hills, stunning coastlines and rugged mountains including the dizzying Ishpatina Ridge and the sweeping Niagara Escarpment culminating in the incomparable Niagara Falls. Quiet towns and quaint, cozy villages contrast with the bustling urban cityscapes of hubs like Toronto and Ottawa. Set against this vibrant patchwork of arcadian and metropolitan backdrops, Ontario’s varied and multiethnic population is part of a spirited cultural mosaic.

The province is known for its inhabitants’ pleasant demeanor, a characteristic that reflects the broader Canadian culture of courtesy. Legendary for their politeness, many Canadians express a spirit of respect for all, with a thoughtful, inclusive attitude towards others. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has frequently said, “Canada is a country built on the values of kindness, fairness, and dignity. These are the values that have made us a strong and prosperous nation, and they are the values that will continue to guide us in the years to come.”

canadian cityscape with smiling friendly looking people mixed ethnic backgrounds some with disabilities

While these values are an integral part of Canada’s national identity, Canada's heritage, often marked by moments of not just politesse but real collective bravery and resilience, is at inevitable odds with sadder instances where its societal structures failed to uphold the principles of justice and inclusion. Yet, it is from these difficult experiences that Canada has learned to forge a path towards a more equitable and just society. The country's embrace of progress towards equality and its strong support for human rights reflect a hard-earned belief in the inherent worth and dignity of all humankind.


Ontario's chronicles, like those of Canada, include both treasured tales of traditions and stories of shortcomings. The province has learned from these darker events as well as from its communal movements towards change. While Ontario has made significant strides in promoting human rights, its past and ongoing challenges highlight the importance of continued vigilance and steps to make certain the province enacts its deep-rooted ideals of equality, justice, and respect for all.


Margaret Atwood, the famous Canadian (and Ontarian) writer and poet, said in a recent interview with the BBC: “I think that diversity is the most important thing in life. It's what makes us interesting and unique. We should all be proud of our differences and celebrate them.” This mindset, a point of national pride, has extended to the realm of accessibility, where Canada has emerged as a global leader.


A model of this inclusive outlook is the implementation of the various human rights and disability access laws and regulations that have been enacted over the years in Canada and her provinces, including the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation (IASR) within Ontario, as part of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) law. The Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation (IASR), a landmark piece of disability rights legislation, sets forth comprehensive standards for accessibility in digital products and services. The IASR standards demonstrate Ontario’s commitment to making the province's services, products, and facilities accessible to all individuals, including those with disabilities.


What Does Accessibility Mean?

Accessibility, in the sense we’re discussing, is a worldwide disability rights movement committed to creating a better and more welcoming infrastructure where everyone, regardless of their abilities, can participate fully. The fight for accessibility arose from the broader human rights movement, the decades-long and still continuing struggle to secure and establish equal rights and opportunities for all people, including those with disabilities. Accessibility advocacy works to advance not just concrete and virtual systems, but a greater social environment where the contributions of all persons, regardless of their abilities, are appreciated and esteemed.


As a whole, accessibility addresses recognizing and removing existing obstacles, and discouraging the future creation of hindrances and hurdles that exclude people with disabilities from accessing and contributing to various aspects of life, including education, employment, and leisure activities.


Accessibility is a broad term that can include everything from physical access for people with disabilities to buildings or transportation, to the coding and coloring of websites and applications in such a way that no one is denied entry.

person wearing blind glasses listening to mobile phone

What is Digital Accessibility?

Digital accessibility is a subset of the larger accessibility whole. Generally speaking, digital accessibility usually refers to designing and coding websites, tools, and technologies in a way that makes them usable by people with various disabilities. Using testing tools as well as accessibility experts to review these materials is also part of the picture.


Digital accessibility includes creating, adjusting, and maintaining digital content that is perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust, following the POUR principles of the WCAG, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. These are accepted standards established and updated by the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). While WCAG sounds like it refers to web content only, it also applies to many other things by extension. To be clear, without accessible digital content, people who are blind, for example, have no way to enter, navigate, and make use of websites, web applications, electronic documents, and even things we might not immediately think of as related to computers, like a ticket machine or information kiosk at a train station.


In our digital era, the internet has become a vital part of daily life for people across the globe, with approximately 5.3 billion internet users as of an October 2023 count, a whopping 65.7% of the overall population. People with disabilities account for 16% of the world's population. Within those two percentages, there is a great deal of overlap: individuals with different abilities who engage with virtual and electronic spaces. Digital accessibility is key to establishing a cybersphere where all people can feel that they belong; where everyone, including individuals with disabilities, can access information, services, and opportunities online.


Digital accessibility in today's tech-centric world is a key component of equitable opportunities for everyone. With it, individuals with disabilities can effectively use and interact with digital products, services, and environments. Without it, they’re inevitably locked out.

A split-screen image contrasting two scenarios: one representing a non-accessible digital environment and the other depicting an accessible one.

Equal, Accessible Prospects for All: Canada & Ontario

Canada's disability legislation includes both federal and provincial acts, bills, charters and laws, creating an intricate legal landscape. These statutes establish standards for both physical and digital environments, mandating accessibility so that individuals with disabilities can fully participate in society.


Provincial regulations reinforce, rather than replace, federal mandates, introducing stricter standards or additional requirements to further protect disability rights. The interplay between federal and provincial ordinances demands a clear understanding of the legal hierarchy. Federal generally supersedes provincial, unless otherwise specified.


Canada's Federal Disability Laws


Canada's federal disability laws apply across the country, for consistent protection of disability rights for all Canadians. Disability laws at the federal level are outlined below in descending order of their scope and significance:

Ontario's Provincial Disability Laws

Within the framework of federal disability legislation, each province and territory in Canada has its own laws specifically safeguarding individuals from discrimination on the basis of disability. These local laws around disability rights draw upon the principles established by federal legislation. The following important laws are applicable in the province of Ontario:

IASR Compliance: Core Purpose

The Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation (IASR) aims to create an inclusive wired and wireless digitally connected society by establishing digital and web standards for organizations to follow. These standards guide the design, development, and maintenance of digital products, services, and environments to make them accessible to people with diverse abilities.


IASR compliance encompasses a wide range of considerations, including the use of alternative text for images, clear and consistent navigation structures, compatible technologies, and adaptable content formats. By adhering to these standards, organizations can create digital experiences that are welcoming and usable for all.


IASR General Requirements

All government and public sector organizations in Ontario are required to make their websites and digital content conform to web accessibility standards. This means that websites must be accessible to individuals with disabilities, such as people who are blind or deaf. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) should be used to help organizations make their websites accessible and compliant.


When Did, or Does, the IASR Take Effect?

Ontario has taken a proactive approach to promoting digital accessibility through the implementation of the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation (IASR). The IASR, which initially came into effect in 2011, establishes a set of accessibility standards that apply to various aspects of public life, including the digital realm.


The IASR instituted phased-in compliance dates for organizations of different types and sizes. The government of Ontario and the Legislative Assembly were expected to be in compliance with the IASR by January 1, 2015, while certain designated public sector organizations had a deadline of January 1, 2016. Some smaller organizations had a January 2018 due date, while larger organizations were slated for a January 2017 compliance.


Overall, all obligated organizations are required to be in full IASR compliance by 2025. This is part of the AODA’s goal of full accessibility by 2040.

Disabilities Covered by IASR Compliance

The IASR covers a broad spectrum of disabilities, including visual, hearing, motor, and cognitive impairments:


Visual Impairments

Visual impairments could include a variety of conditions including blindness, color-blindness and low vision. According to an October 2022 study on the prevalence of vision impairment and blindness in Canada, approximately 700,000 Canadians have some form of vision impairment, and 60,000 Canadians are blind.


Auditory Impairments

Hearing loss is the third most common chronic condition in Canada. According to a 2021 report on hearing health by Statistics Canada (pdf), approximately 38% of the adult population have some form of hearing loss. This percentage is expected to increase. 


Motor Impairments

Some examples of motor impairments include quadriplegia, paraplegia, and cerebral palsy. Whether incurred through genetics, illness, accident or aging, motor impairments affect a relatively large percentage of the population. The Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) reports that 13.5% of Canadians aged 15 and over experience some form of motor impairment, including paralysis, weakness, or difficulty with coordination.


Age-Related Difficulties

The elderly population is more likely to experience certain disabilities or impairments compared to younger individuals, and the risk of these conditions increases as people age. These may include vision problems such as macular degeneration, gradual hearing loss, mobility impairments including arthritis, mental health concerns and cognitive decline including Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.


Cognitive Impairments

People of any age may have or develop a wide variety of cognitive impairments, including learning disabilities, developmental disabilities, and intellectual disabilities, as well as neurodevelopmental, neuropsychiatric, and neuropsychological conditions. It is important to note that these terms are not always used consistently, and there is some debate about their meaning and usage.


By addressing the needs of individuals with these and other disabilities, IASR compliance promotes a more equitable and inclusive digital landscape.


The Importance of Accessibility in the IASR Framework

Accessibility is essential, upholding the rights and dignity of individuals with disabilities. Failure to comply with the IASR and other disability rights laws and regulations can lead to legal consequences for organizations, as well as unfairly limiting opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Keeping to IASR accessibility standards is part of our moral duty to work towards a more inclusive society.


Within the parameters of the IASR framework, similarly to other disability rights laws in Canada and elsewhere, accessibility compliance is critical for several compelling reasons.


Equity and Inclusion

Legal Repercussions

Business Benefits

Moral Imperative

Digital accessibility is a fundamental component of providing equal opportunities for everyone to participate in the digital world, regardless of their abilities.

By making digital deliverables accessible, we help build a more inclusive society that respects the rights of people with disabilities.

Non-compliance with IASR standards can lead to legal consequences.

Organizations that fail to meet the accessibility requirements may face fines, penalties and legal challenges. Organizations must understand and adhere to these standards to successfully avoid legal liabilities.

Digital accessibility is sound business practice. By making their digital offerings accessible, organizations can expand their customer base, enhance brand reputation, and foster innovation.

Digital accessibility is a strategic investment that can transform a company's trajectory.

Beyond legal and business considerations, accessibility is the right thing to do.

By recognizing the inherent value and dignity of every individual, regardless of abilities, and by creating inclusive digital spaces, we are demonstrating our commitment to creating a more equitable world for all.

Are There Different Levels of IASR Compliance?

The IASR must be complied with by all organizations obliged by it at an equal level of compliance. IASR compliance is either based directly on, or closely tied to the WCAG compliance levels.


Federal Government ICT/Digital Compliance

Departments, agencies and organizations within the Canadian government at all levels are encouraged to comply with the Harmonised European Standard, EN 301 549 (2018) (pdf), which itself is aligned with and bases its digital and web accessibility compliance on the WCAG 2.1, AA level. While these standards will be updated, that is where the law currently stands. It is expected that the 2021 Harmonised European Standard accessibility requirements for ICT products and services (EN 301 549) (pdf) will soon be required. It is also suggested that government bodies follow the guidelines in the Revised Section 508 of the US Rehabilitation Act. We mention the federal-level requirements for compliance because they also apply to Ontarian government bodies.


Global Web Accessibility Compliance Levels: WCAG

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a set of internationally recognized standards that help websites become and remain accessible to people with disabilities. Developed and maintained by the nongovernmental World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG has gained widespread acceptance as a benchmark for web accessibility, influencing legislation and policies worldwide.


The WCAG has three levels of accessibility compliance: A, AA, and AAA.

Level A is the bare minimum and Level AA is the recommended level for most websites. Level AA is a more comprehensive level of compliance, which involves addressing a wider range of accessibility needs and providing a more user-friendly experience for individuals with disabilities. For legal compliance with most accessibility laws around the world, AA is recommended, and AAA is a higher standard to strive for.


Level AAA is not always possible to achieve. This is due to several factors, including:

An IASR How-To: Actionable Steps to Better Compliance

The IASR sets out requirements for businesses, organizations, and other private and public entities in Ontario to make their goods, services, and facilities accessible to people with disabilities. The standards are designed to be achievable for businesses and organizations of all sizes, and they are reviewed regularly to confirm that they are up-to-date with internationally accepted standards such as the WCAG.


The IASR has been credited with making Ontario a more accessible place for people with disabilities. The government of Ontario is committed to working with businesses, organizations, and people with disabilities to continue to improve accessibility in Ontario. However, there is still more work to be done. Individually and independently, each business and organization must implement accessibility measures, policies, and procedures to get closer to the goal of full compliance with both IASR and WCAG standards.


While there are many online tips and tutorials, as well as expert advice and consulting available through both nonprofit foundations and accessibility implementation businesses, we suggest you begin by reading through the Government of Ontario’s guide: How to comply with the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation (pdf). If there are other guide formats you need for accessibility reasons, or if you require more support in accessing this information, you can contact Ontario government agencies and help lines via social media, telephone, accessible TTY lines, fax, or email. There is also a physical address in Toronto for the Ministry for Seniors and Accessibility.


Make Your Digital & Web Content Accessible for Everyone


In Ontario, the IASR requires websites and other forms of digital content to be accessible to people with disabilities. Take a moment to review these tips to help you get started or improve:

Towards an Inclusive, Equitable Future

Accessibility, both in the physical and digital worlds, is a fundamental human right that opens doors to a more equal and inclusive society. It creates a sense of belonging and empowers people with disabilities to fully participate in all aspects of life.

Ontario's Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation (IASR) show Ontario's commitment to making the province barrier-free by 2025, just ahead, setting clear guidelines and timelines for organizations to follow, and making sure that digital spaces are designed and maintained with accessibility in mind. When we work towards accessibility, we are also leading the way to a better tomorrow, where everyone has the chance to succeed.


Digital accessibility is the practice of making digital products and services accessible to people with disabilities. This includes making sure that websites, apps, and other digital products can be used by people who have visual impairments, auditory impairments, motor impairments, or cognitive impairments.

The Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation (IASR) is a set of accessibility standards that apply to various aspects of public life in Canada, specifically the digital realm. These standards aim to remove barriers so that people with disabilities have equal access to digital information, communications, and services. Complying with IASR standards means making digital content and related technology and services accessible.

One common misconception is that digital accessibility is only for people with disabilities. However, digital accessibility benefits everyone, including people without disabilities. For example, clear and consistent navigation structures make it easier for everyone to find the information they need.

Another common misconception is that digital accessibility is always extremely expensive and time-consuming to implement. However, there are many cost-effective and time-efficient ways to make your website accessible. For example, many accessibility issues can be fixed with simple changes to your website's code.

Microsoft has a long-standing commitment to digital accessibility. The company has a team of over 200 accessibility experts who work to make Microsoft products and services accessible to people with disabilities. Apple is another company that has made significant progress in the area of digital accessibility. The company's iOS operating system includes a number of accessibility features, such as VoiceOver and Zoom. Adobe has also made a strong commitment to digital accessibility. The company has a number of resources available to help developers create accessible content.

One of the biggest challenges organizations may face is a lack of awareness of digital accessibility. Many key management individuals or teams within organizations are not aware of the importance of digital accessibility or IASR and other governmental guidelines and requirements. Another challenge is a lack of resources. Many organizations do not have the financial or human resources to implement digital accessibility initiatives. Finally, some organizations may face resistance from stakeholders who incorrectly believe that digital accessibility is not a priority.

Organizations can raise awareness of digital accessibility by educating their employees, stakeholders, and customers. They can prioritize accessibility, allocating the necessary resources to implement digital accessibility initiatives. They can get buy-in from stakeholders by demonstrating the business benefits of digital accessibility.

AI is being used to develop new tools and technologies that can make digital content more accessible. With the increasing use of mobile devices, businesses are increasingly focused on making their websites and apps mobile-compatible and accessible to mobile users. There is a growing demand for products and services that are designed to be inclusive of people with disabilities.

While IASR sets the framework specific to Canada, it draws upon the principles of WCAG, ensuring that digital content meets international accessibility standards.

Beyond legal compliance, IASR standards benefit businesses by expanding their customer base to include people with disabilities, improving overall user experience, and enhancing their reputation as socially responsible entities.

Small businesses and nonprofits often have access to resources and support from government and advocacy groups to achieve IASR compliance. This includes funding, training, and guides specifically tailored to their needs and capacities.

IASR is part of the AODA, specific to Ontario, but intersects with other provincial and federal laws in Canada, such as the Canadian Human Rights Act. Together, these laws create a comprehensive framework for accessibility across different regions and sectors.

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