A Hot Summer for Technology Policy
Over my 20 years of advocacy in Washington, D.C., I have never seen such a time of celebration combined with as much substance as I've seen this summer. The occasion for celebration was the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was enacted on July 26, 1990.
Although the ADA is probably best known for improvements in physical access, much of the recent policy activity has been focused on technology. In fact, technology policy developments are popping up so fast that we can barely keep up. We'll try to keep you informed about the most important initiatives and ways for you to be involved. You may also visit the ADA website for extensive information about the legislation, as well as notices regarding new rules and proposed regulations. You may also sign up for email notifications of new ADA-related information.
Update on Legislation
On July 26, 2010, the very day the ADA was signed into being 20 years ago, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to approve H.R. 3101, the "Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010," by an overwhelming margin (348-23). (See AccessWorld's March 2010 issue for earlier reporting). The American Foundation for the Blind joined other organizations in the disability community in advocating for this legislation, which is intended to improve access to new communications technologies and television programs. Among other improvements, the legislation would, if enacted,
- mandate mobile communications companies make Web browsers, text messaging, and e-mail on smart phones fully accessible;
- require manufacturers of TV equipment to ensure all controls are accessible;
- require cable and other providers of television service to make their program guides and selection menus accessible to people with vision loss;
- restore and expand requirements for video description of television programs, and ensure that people with vision loss have access to emergency broadcast information; and
- provide $10 million in funding each year for assistive technology for deaf-blind individuals.
There have been many twists and turns on the path to this successful vote by the House on H.R. 3101. Compromises were required to get it this far. Most of these compromises were pushed by technology industry advocates who demanded more flexibility in government requirements. During hearings before committees in both the House and Senate, vocal advocates within the technology industry, particularly representatives of the Consumer Electronics Association, spread false notions that innovation has, or will, solve access problems facing people with disabilities. Much was made of the iPhone and iPad, which do indeed demonstrate tremendous access innovations. However, they are the exception, not the rule. For example, people with vision loss still have only one Blackberry device that is fully accessible, and that access comes at the very high price of $449 for Oratio. Access to most other smart phones is possible only with the purchase of expensive screen-access software. The television industry also argued that access will cost too much. The industry sought to severely cap the amount of television programming that might be provided with video description. The video description requirements remained in H.R. 3101 only after they were scaled back.
Ten years ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required television broadcasters and cable operators to begin providing a minimum of four hours a week of description for popular programs. The TV industry was adamantly opposed and convinced a federal court to overturn this modest effort based on the interpretation that the FCC lacked congressional authority to impose this requirement. As introduced, H.R. 3101 restores this modest requirement (providing a clear congressional directive) and authorizes the FCC to eventually require additional hours of description. The industry successfully lobbied to remove the additional FCC authority from the version of the legislation that passed a subcommittee in late June, leaving a cap of seven hours a week of programming that must be described and only for the largest cable networks and in the largest metropolitan areas. Congressional leaders worked out an agreement to allow the FCC to increase the amount of described programs after 10 years.
The United States Senate passed its version of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, S. 3304 on August 5, 2010. The bill was amended to be nearly identical to the House bill, H.R. 3101, but there are some differences that still need to be worked out before the bill can become law. Congress is away for the month of August, so no further action is expected until September when both the House and Senate return to complete work on pending legislation. Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR), is the lead sponsor and champion of S. 3304.
One key difference between the two bills is that S. 3304 does not authorize the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to require TV broadcasters and cable providers to increase the amount of video-described TV programs beyond a cap of 7 hours per week.
You can find out more about this legislation, including steps you can take today to help ensure it addresses the needs of the disability community, on the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology website.
Access to Cell Phones
On July 19, the FCC announced an initiative to improve access to cell phones for people with vision loss or who are deaf-blind. In a notice published in the Federal Register (the federal government's daily publication of proposed rules and new regulations), the FCC requested ideas from consumers, industry, and others regarding methods to improve access to cell phones. The notice states, "we are concerned that people who are blind or have other vision disabilities have few accessible and affordable wireless phone options.…the vast majority of mobile telephones are not accessible to this population without the addition of expensive software." The notice went on to acknowledge the specific obstacles experienced by individuals who are deaf-blind, particularly the cost of braille displays and the difficulty of getting the displays to work with cell phone technology. Comments are due by September 13, 2010, and the FCC will accept reply comments by September 30, 2010.
The FCC is particularly interested in obtaining information and ideas regarding the following:
- current cell phone features and functions that are not accessible for people who are blind, have vision loss, or are deaf-blind, and the cost and feasibility of technical solutions;
- reasons why there are not a greater number of wireless phones--particularly among less expensive or moderately priced handset models--that are accessible to people who are blind or have vision loss; and
- technical obstacles, if any, to making wireless technologies compatible with braille displays, as well as the cost and feasibility of technical solutions to achieve other forms of compatibility with wireless products and services for people who are deaf-blind.
AFB is gathering comments on our cell phone accessibility webpage and by email at email@example.com. The FCC notice is also available on the AFB site.
On July 19, Julius Genachowski, FCC chairman, announced the launch of the Accessibility and Innovation Initiative, which includes a "problem-solving commons" for the exchange of ideas on communications access, upcoming action on cloud-based computing, and a special chairman's award to be presented next July. More information can be found on the Accessibility and Innovation Initiative website.
But wait; as the infomercials say, "There's more!"
Proposed Action on Web Access and Video Description
The ADA anniversary was celebrated with more than just parties. The Department of Justice has made good on a promise to address website accessibility under the ADA. Although the Internet was a fledgling, and largely unknown, technology infrastructure when the ADA was enacted, the Web is now essential to access to products and services. As such, the Justice Department has announced an initiative to determine how best to ensure access to websites (especially commercial websites under Title III of the ADA). Summarizing the situation, the Justice Department's notice states, "Although the Department has been clear that the ADA applies to websites of private entities that meet the definition of 'public accommodations,' inconsistent court decisions, differing standards for determining Web accessibility, and repeated calls for Department action indicate remaining uncertainty regarding the applicability of the ADA to websites of entities covered by title III." In addition, the department also has issued a notice asking for comment related to requiring movie theaters to install the technology to provide video description and captions.
To learn more about the proposals from the Department of Justice, and to submit your comment in support of access to the Web and to video description, please use these links:
Department of Justice's advance notice of proposed rulemaking on movie captioning and video description
Department of Justice's advance notice of proposed rulemaking on Web access
Comments from the public are welcome and are due by January 24, 2011.
Obama Administration Ready to Ramp Up Efforts on Federal Government Technology Accessibility
Finally, progress is being made in the long-dormant arena of federal government purchasing of accessible technology. Section 508, a provision included in the Rehabilitation Act, requires the federal government to ensure that electronic and information technology purchased, developed, or used by federal agencies is accessible to individuals with disabilities, including employees and members of the public, unless it would be an undue burden to do so. The access to and use of electronic and information technology for people with disabilities must be comparable with that for individuals who do not have disabilities. Although this law applies to federal government agencies, it is also designed to use the market power of government spending to encourage the development of accessible information and communications technology. Unfortunately, the law has not been actively promoted at the highest level of government. But that appears to be changing.
On July 19, a memo was issued by the Executive Office of the President of the United States that states, "To ensure that persons with disabilities have equal access to their government, agencies must buy and use accessible electronic and information technology (EIT), as required by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C 794d), as amended." The memo provides guidance and includes resources to help government agencies improve their efforts regarding technology access. Federal employees and members of the public will be invited to provide feedback at "listening sessions." In spring 2011, the Department of Justice will issue a progress report on federal agency compliance with Section 508, the first since 2004.
Important new changes are also being made in the rules implementing Section 508. Last March, the United States Access Board issued a proposal to update the Section 508 rules (as well as the access guidelines related to Section 255, a law that requires accessible telecommunications products and services). The board's proposal features a new structure and format integrating the 508 standards and 255 guidelines into a single document referred to as the "Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Standards and Guidelines." Requirements have been reorganized according to functionality instead of product type as many devices now feature an array of capabilities and applications. Products and technologies covered by this rulemaking include telephones, cell phones, and other telecommunication products; computer hardware and software; websites; media players; electronic documents; and personal digital assistants, among others. A first round of public comments closed in late June. You may read more about the new Access Board proposals and track comments by visiting the Trace Center's website.
The American Foundation for the Blind regularly reports on policy issues in Washington, D.C., through our blog and our Public Policy Center. In particular, AFB's Public Policy Center offers a periodic email newsletter called DirectConnect as well as extensive information on policy issues. You can sign up for DirectConnect and find other information on the Public Policy Center webpage.
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