Access Policy Update
What Can Policy Change Do for You?
Access to technology and information is heavily influenced by the actions of policy-makers, in Washington DC and often elsewhere too. From TV to books and mobile communications, let's look at some of the significant developments in access policies that are likely to be the subject of debate and action in 2010.
While you are reading through this summary of issues, remember the old civil rights era admonition, "nothing about us without us." If people with disabilities want to be in charge of their lives, their destiny, they must take responsibility and advocate loudly and clearly to policy-makers regarding the need for requirements that will improve access to information and communications.
To help you keep up with policy activities in Washington DC, AFB's Public Policy Center offers a periodic email newsletter called DirectConnect as well as extensive information about policy issues. You can sign up for DirectConnect and find other information at http://www.afb.org/policy.
Communications Technology Legislation (The COAT Bill)
A coalition of disability organizations has been working to update and improve government policies regarding access to technology. Organized under the clever acronym COAT, which stands for Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology, the organization has been working with Congressman Edward Markey (D-Mass.) who introduced the "21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2009" (H.R. 3101).
Caption: Congressman Edward Markey (D-Mass.)
The legislation, introduced on June 26, 2009, encompasses a broad scope, modernizing disability accessibility mandates in the Communications Act, bringing existing requirements up to date to cover TV and communications services deployed over the Internet and ensuring access to television through accessible interfaces and video description. In short, this bill brings communications policy requirements into the 21st century to ensure that mobile devices and digital TV are accessible for people with disabilities.
The legislation is modeled on and builds on the language of current law which requires telecommunications equipment and services to be accessible and televisions to include closed captioning technology and TV programs to be closed captioned. Among other things, the bill would clarify current law to ensure that text messaging is required to be accessible under the legal mandates of Section 255 of the Communications Act. (Disability advocates believe that Section 255 covers text messaging, but telecommunications companies have argued that it does not). The new legislation would also:
Require that mobile and other Internet-based communications devices include accessible user interfaces and ensure that the telephone functions are fully hearing aid compatible
Provide people who are deaf-blind with vital, but costly, technologies they need to communicate electronically, establish a process for the provision of real-time text capability, clarify telecommunications relay requirements, and enhance universal service programs such as Lifeline and Linkup to support communications access for people with disabilities
Restore the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC's) modest video description rules and unambiguously establish the Commission's current and ongoing authority to increase the coverage area and amount of programming
Require emergency announcements and similar information to be accessible to people with disabilities through audible presentation of on-screen alerts
Ensure that video programming offered via the Internet will be both captioned and described
Require that televisions and program receivers like set-top boxes be designed with accessible user interfaces and allow ready access to electronic program guides and
Strengthen enforcement strategies for consumers and establish a clearinghouse of information about service and equipment accessibility and usability.
Currently, the legislation is awaiting further action in a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. There is not a similar bill in the United States Senate. Of course, Congress needs to hear from people with disabilities about the need for legislation to achieve these goals.
What is Section 255?
Section 255 was added to the Communications Act in 1996. It requires manufacturers of telecommunications equipment and providers of telecommunications service to ensure that their products and services are accessible to, and usable by, people with disabilities, if it is readily achievable to do so. The Federal Communications Commission, a government agency, has the responsibility of investigating complaints and enforcing the accessibility requirements.
Under Section 255, consumers with disabilities can lodge a complaint against a company because of an inaccessible telephone or telephone service (either traditional landline or mobile). If you would like to file a complaint, you can do so by contacting the Federal Communications Commission. You can send details about your complaint by mail to the Federal Communications Commission, Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, 445 12th Street SW, Washington, DC 20554. You can also send a complaint via email to the FCC at firstname.lastname@example.org. Finally, you can also use a specific FCC web-based form to file a complaint. The form (along with other information) can be found at http://esupport.fcc.gov/complaints.htm
If H.R. 3101 passes, the Federal Communications Commission would also be tasked with investigating and enforcing complaints regarding accessibility.
Access to affordable and high-speed Internet (or broadband) connections for all Americans has been adopted by the Obama Administration as a key policy goal. The so-called stimulus funding package enacted in 2009 included over seven billion dollars for broadband deployment (the first installment of grants were recently announced), and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was tasked with creating a national broadband plan. Access to broadband service is often likened to the efforts at the dawn of the 20th century to spread the telephone. Along with the federal funds, the FCC is hoping to spur a number of strategies through its national plan to increase access to broadband. For example, wireless broadband is emerging as a key solution to increasing the availability of high-speed Internet connections. In addition, policy-makers will likely be asked to consider using universal service funds, originally established to pay for the installation of telephone networks in hard-to-reach places, to be used for broadband network deployment. Noting that only 42% of people with disabilities have adopted broadband, the FCC is also taking a careful look at strategies to ensure access for people with disabilities to broadband communications technologies as well as web content. The final plan is expected sometime this spring and we'll keep you posted on developments in this area. You can also track developments at : http://www.broadband.gov.
Getting Between the Covers, Improving Access to Books
Accessible books proved to be a hot topic during 2009, and we're likely to hear much more about it in 2010. The year began with the tantalizing, but ultimately frustrating, unveiling of Amazon's Kindle 2 with text-to-speech (TTS) access. Unfortunately, people with vision loss cannot independently operate the TTS function. (Recently, Amazon announced that it will address access to the TTS functionality for people with vision loss.) Then, adding insult to injury, Amazon caved to author and publisher pressure and agreed to block TTS access to books upon request by the copyright holder. A broad-based coalition of disability and other interest groups formed the Reading Rights Coalition to fight this open attack on accessibility. You can find out more about the coalition at http://www.readingrights.org/.
When Amazon announced a pilot effort to work with universities to test the Kindle DX, a larger version of the Kindle, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB) took legal action against the universities based on the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. These laws require education institutions to ensure access for people with disabilities. As we went to press, a settlement was announced between NFB and ACB and Arizona State University. Other universities have already announced they will not use inaccessible e-readers.
Meanwhile, Google continues its quest to transform digital information, including access to books through Google's search. In 2004, Google shook the publishing world when it announced that it had entered into agreements with several libraries to digitize books, including books protected by U.S. copyright law, in those libraries' collections. Authors and publishers brought a lawsuit against Google claiming that its digitization without permission infringed their copyrights. In response to the authors' and publishers' claims of copyright infringement, Google argued that its digitization of the books and display of snippets, or a few lines, of the books is permitted under the U.S. copyright law's doctrine of "fair use." Eventually, the parties negotiated a settlement which is now awaiting final approval by a U.S. Federal District Court judge before it can be implemented.
There are several components to the Google Books effort including access to out-of-print and public domain books as well as various levels of access to large sections of text based on search results. The Google Books project is of particular interest to the disability community because Google is working on methods to provide access to the digital text.
As 2009 came to a close, excitement came from an unexpected place, a United Nation's Committee meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. The Committee with the Orwellian name of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) addresses international agreements on copyright to allow the orderly exchange of books, movies, and other intellectual property across national borders. For many years, advocates for people with vision loss have been working to allow braille, recorded and electronic books to be exchanged more easily among nations. Currently, books in specialized formats can be shared among libraries if individual nations have an agreement to do so, but advocates want a system that facilitates sharing of accessible formats throughout the world to make it easier and faster for people with print disabilities to get access to material regardless of where it was developed.
This seemingly straightforward issue has been complicated, because many governments and industries oppose easy transfers of accessible formats, especially electronic files which they fear could be pirated and sold to people who do not have print disabilities.
For people with vision loss, there are precious few books that are produced in accessible formats such as audio, large print, braille, and accessible digital text. This is true, even for those of us living in the US who are fortunate to have organizations and a robust government program that produce books in accessible formats. The situation is far worse for people with print disabilities in much of the rest of the world, especially developing nations.
Last December, at the WIPO meeting in Geneva, the United States government issued a statement pledging to work to "…reach international consensus on the free exportation and importation of special format materials for persons with print disabilities in all countries." This is a an important step toward making more books available, especially books in accessible formats produced here in the US that could be used in other parts of the world, but also books made accessible elsewhere that are otherwise not available here. In particular, this could be very helpful for people with print disabilities wishing to access books produced in other countries in languages other than English.
Because this effort will require changes in copyright laws and agreements among nations, this issue is complex and will take time to sort out. In fact, several more meetings of the WIPO committee working on this issue will likely need to convene before any solution is made final. However, George Kerscher, Secretary General of the DAISY Consortium, sounded an optimistic note. According to Kerscher, "the US is willing to look at a variety of approaches to solve the 'book famine' problem. To me this means that there may be options that will allow the cross border exchange of materials even before a treaty is passed and ratified by the member states."
The full U.S. government statement to the world copyright body, known as the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) can be read at the following web site, http://www.uspto.gov/ip/global/copyrights/index.jsp.
The statement is titled "Statement on copyright exceptions and limitations for persons with disabilities to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) standing committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) in Geneva, Switzerland"
A good site for information on this topic is the DAISY Consortium which promotes international efforts to enable equal access to information for people with print disabilities. The web site is: http://www.daisy.org.
Get Connected, Speak Out and Stay Involved
Because information technology is so central to so much of our lives, the disability community continues to work for legal mandates that ensure the accessibility of the technology products and services. These legal mandates are powerful tools and they have helped to influence technology developers to address accessibility. However, legislation and government policy is very difficult and time-consuming to accomplish. Although many developers of technology may be very supportive of accessibility for people with disabilities, they resist specific government direction regarding how to achieve it. As a consequence, efforts to settle on final policy language often require lengthy debate and ongoing negotiations. One of the most important things that consumers with disabilities can do is to keep putting pressure on policy-makers such as members of Congress to make sure they understand that their constituents with disabilities really do care about being able to use technology-based products and services.
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