Where Activism and Innovation Collide: Creating a More Accessible Financial Sector in Canada


Street signs at the Corner of Bank and Queen, Ottawa

Chris Stark and Marie Laporte-Stark first approached RBC about lack of access to important financial information in 1984, when they first moved to Ottawa. After struggling to buy a mortgage and eventually losing money on investments due to not being given notices they could read, the couple decided to take action. But over a period of several years in which they attempted to resolve their concerns with bank officials “it became clear that the bank viewed our desire for access to information as a matter of charity,” Laporte-Stark has written.[1] The Starks eventually filed a formal Human Rights Complaint in 1991. Their activism would be followed by other significant developments.

In 1992, the Access to Information Act, first implemented in 1981, was amended as a result of recommendations made by the Canadian Disability Rights Council (CDRC), with the support of the Canadian Human Rights Commission and Information Commissioner at the time, John W. Grace. The CDRC argued that the Access to Information Act was essentially useless to individuals who were blind or partially-sighted unless there was a mandated requirement to provide all Canadian citizens with a format they could access.[2]  The amendment that came as a result of the CDRC’s request specified that federal agencies must provide alternate formats of government documents to individuals with sensory impairments.[3] 

Sharlyn Ayotte heard of this amendment from a friend, as it was not widely promoted, especially to those who might benefit from the change the most. As an emergent entrepreneur in the tech industry, she took interest. Ayotte lost her eyesight at age 27 as a result of light emission tests she conducted with argon lasers while employed as an R&D laboratory researcher. She subsequently retrained to become a computer programmer, which she did briefly, but then obtained a position in marketing and sales with a computer company—a job she was highly successful at.

In 1990, Ayotte set out to start her own business with one other business partner, financial broker Len Fowler. The company, initially called T-Base Research and Development, focused on information security issues. While establishing the company, however, Ayotte faced limited access to information that would equip her with the knowledge to run her business successfully. Upon hearing about the amendment to the Access to Information Act, she requested access to government documents pertaining to emergent federal policies on the Information Highway. Industry Canada initially refused to provide her with the documents in an alternative format she could read, despite their now legal obligation to do so. Undaunted, Ayotte continued to press for these documents, and after a ten-month battle, was finally granted access.[4]

This experience compelled Ayotte to convince her business partner to change course. Rather than security, Ayotte argued that they should instead focus on accessibility. By 1994, Ayotte re-named the business to T-Base Communications. To facilitate the new direction of the company, Ayotte formed the Communication Access Team that consisted of herself and four other women, Mary Taylor, Dalma French, Laurie Bowes and Melissa Fowler. All friends, they affectionately referred to each other as the CATS:  Taylor, the graphic designer and artist, was “Sophisticat”. French, the art director, was “Aristocat”. Bowes, the writer and editor, was “Etticat”. Fowler, who headed communications and administration was “Communicat”. Ayotte was appropriately known as “Advocat”.[5]  

Together they researched international guidelines for accessible documents and in the end developed their own as it pertained to the automated production of alternative formats, taking into consideration design, font size and print legibility. As a part of this, the team studied audio characteristics that would maximize understanding for people who relied on sound to receive and process information. Eventually, the guidelines they created were not only used by T-Base, but were also adopted by the Government of Canada, as well as several corporations across North America. Moreover, the team’s efforts laid the groundwork for InfoTouch.[6]  

InfoTouch was an on-demand publishing system for which individuals could telephone a specific number, receive guidance as to which company or organization they should direct their call, and request information in a format they could access, whether large print, braille, or diskette. Through automating the process by which individuals could be given access to documents, InfoTouch proved to be an efficient and cost-effective means of providing services to customers with disabilities. It would go on to be recognized as an important achievement in providing accessible services, winning the IWAY award featured below, a bronze trophie in the shape of a maple leaf. 

Although the federal government seemed disinterested in such services initially, the RBC, and later other chartered banks, embraced the innovation. This in large part had to do with timing. It was 1996 and the Human Rights complaint made by Chris Stark and Marie Laporte-Stark had finally reached a settlement. This settlement included a range of stipulations by the Starks, including providing alternative formats on request, whether brochures, information packets, letters, or bank statements.[7] InfoTouch seemed like the ideal solution and RBC sought out T-Base to initiate the system, a partnership that would lead to other innovations, not least of which was the world’s first talking ATM. 

[1] Marie Laporte-Stark, “Advocating for Access: Securing our Rights by Speaking Up” unpublished paper, Stark’s private collection, Ottawa ON.

[2] John W. Grace, Annual Report Information Commissioner 1991-1992 (Ministry of Public Works and Government Services, 1992), 21.

[3] Phillip Copel, Information Rights: Law and Practice, 3rd edition(Portland, OR: Hart Publishing, 2010), ft.230, 67.

[4] Oral Interview with Sharlyn Ayotte, by Beth Robertson, Ottawa ON, 13 April 2016.

[5] Sharlyn Ayotte to Beth Robertson, Email Correspondence, 17 May 2016.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Royal Bank Makes it Easier for All Clients—Including People with Disabilities and the Elderly—to Access Financial Services Information,” Royal Bank Press Release, Toronto (12 September 1996)

Where Activism and Innovation Collide: Creating a More Accessible Financial Sector in Canada