Rebecca Blaevoet, pictured in Windsor, Ont. on March 30, is fighting for better customer service access for the visually impaired. (Dave Chidley/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
An Ontario woman says the federal government is letting down residents with disabilities by forbidding staff at Passport Canada from helping applicants fill out their forms.
Rebecca Blaevoet of Windsor, Ont., says she learned of the policy last month when she went to have her passport renewed.
Blaevoet, who is totally blind, requested that Passport Canada staff write out her form according to the responses she provided, but was informed that doing so would violate official guidelines.
Staff offered her a braille form, which would only have allowed her to read the application rather than complete it, only to retract the offer upon realizing they did not have any in stock.
In the end Blaevoet says she was asked to handwrite the form as a staff member placed a writing guide – an aid to show her where to write – on each individual line, an option she said wouldn’t have been available to people whose disabilities prevented them from holding a pen or writing in print.
Passport Canada says the rule barring staff from filling in forms on behalf of others is applied across the country, adding there is no exemption in place for Canadians with disabilities.
Blaevoet, who has filed an official complaint about her experience with Passport Canada, said the policy represents a complete failure to accommodate those with disabilities.
“There is no excuse for such ethical laxity in providing decent services for all Canadians regardless of disability, race, ethnic origin, whatever,” she said in an interview. “I just think it’s reprehensible that they have such a gap.”
Blaevoet said her experience took place on March 22 when she and her husband went to renew their passports.
Blaevoet, unaware of the existing policy, said she anticipated that having a Passport Canada employee complete the one-page, double-sided form would be the most efficient way of processing her application.
Upon arrival, however, a clerk informed her that he could not fulfil her request, adding doing so was “not his job.”
Blaevoet escalated the matter to a supervisor, who said Passport Canada staff could not complete the form for fear of “leading the applicant” to provide inaccurate answers. When Blaevoet offered to sign a document authorizing staff to assist her, she said no such accommodation could be granted.
Blaevoet was offered a braille form, which would have allowed her to read the application but would not provide a means of filling in answers. Staff then discovered they had no braille forms in stock.
Blaevoet was ultimately told she could handwrite the form, an option she said she accepted to illustrate what she called the absurdity of the policy.
“I said, ‘fine. I’m going to stand here and handwrite it, it’s going to take me a long time, and good luck to anybody who can read my handwriting. This is outrageous,“’ she said, adding the majority of visually impaired people do not have sufficient handwriting skills to make use of that option. The same would hold true for those with physical disabilities limiting their movements.
Blaevoet said a staff member placed a handwriting guide on each line of the form to ensure the proper fields were being filled out. To Blaevoet’s surprise, however, the staff member volunteered to take over once they reached the “references” section of the form, willingly filling in fields and even offering to look up addresses online.
During this time, Blaevoet said staff approached her husband asking if he would complete the application on her behalf. He declined on principle, saying it was not appropriate for staff to assume a person accompanying a disabled applicant could be trusted to complete the task.
“He could have been a taxi driver who just helped me find the office and I just paid to wait for me. Or he might have been my husband, but completely dyslexic.”
The government said staff are barred from helping applicants fill out forms as a security measure to protect against forgery.
“Generally, any addition, modification or deletion of information on an application form must be completed by the applicant and initialled,” reads a statement from Service Canada, the agency that oversees the administration of passports.
“Although the policy in place speaks to amendments to the application form and does not reference providing assistance to visually impaired applicants, it is understood that any annotations on the application form should be completed by the applicant themselves, when possible.”
The statement said visually impaired Canadians can designate a friend or family member to complete the form for them.
The Passport Canada site also offers an accessible online form that can be completed in advance. Service Canada said, however, that there are no accessible terminals for those with disabilities at passport offices – meaning those without an Internet connection or appropriate technology would have issues. Blaevoet noted that in her case, staff at the Passport Canada office did not point her to an online form.
Michael Prince, professor of social policy and disability studies at the University of Victoria, said the proposed solutions are typical of too many customer service experiences across Canada that limit a person’s ability to take independent action on their own affairs.
He said Blaevoet’s case exemplifies the need for federal legislation to ensure accessible customer service standards across all services provided by government, adding the ideal scenario would result in universal access in everything from banks to stores to voting booths.
“Many people with disabilities will find the existing limited set of options demeaning and insulting,” Prince said. “As a country committed to equality and to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, we can do much better.”