OTTAWA - The federal government's new ArriveCAN travel app is inaccessible to some Canadians with disabilities, raising questions of fair treatment and practical border-crossing concerns.

Robert Fenton, a board member of the CNIB — formerly known as the Canadian National Institute for the Blind — says he found a major bug when using the Apple VoiceOver screen reader on his iPhone as he tried to access the app, which is playing a pivotal role for those wishing to enter Canada by land, sea or air.

The obstacle arises when would-be users try to add the verification code sent to their email address after starting to set up their account.

"There’s no way to add the number without sighted help," Fenton said in an interview.

"As people who are blind, we run into this problem frequently with all levels of government when trying to access public services."

Travellers to Canada must use the ArriveCAN app or online portal to submit their vaccine information and the results of a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than three days before departure.

Trouble accessing an app essential to international travel in the pandemic era could pose a real barrier to entry for Canadians with disabilities.

The federal law enforcement agency responsible for border control acknowledged the problem.

"The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) is aware that there is a gap between the addition of new features to the ArriveCAN app and when it is fully accessible, and we apologize for any inconvenience this may be causing for users. We are working hard to resolve this issue as quickly as possible," agency spokeswoman Jacqueline Callin said in an email.

Unlike the app, the web-based version of ArriveCAN does meet federal accessibility requirements and can be used via desktop, smartphone and other devices, the agency said. It is encouraging travellers who rely on text-to-voice technology to use the online portal until the app store versions are updated.

The Accessible Canada Act, passed in 2019, aims to remove barriers in areas under federal jurisdiction, such as transportation and telecommunications as well as federally run programs.

"It’s time now for the federal government at least to live up to its obligations in that legislation, and that includes making their websites and apps and other services they offer to Canadians fully accessible," Fenton said.

The Canadian Press has confirmed the glitch in the app.

Fenton says it follows another problem that prevented blind and partially sighted Canadians from moving beyond the privacy screen that pops up when the app is opened, and which he said the Canada Border Services Agency recently fixed.

"We couldn't get past the first screen," he said, "so none of us would know about the second problem."

The latest problem is particularly urgent as athletes gear up to travel to Tokyo for the Paralympic Games this summer.

Fenton is asking the Canada Border Services Agency to make the app accessible by July 23.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 9, 2021.

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