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for the Blind

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Two Good News Items from Washington: Described TV and Accessible Higher Ed Materials Gaining Ground

July 12, 2017

For further information, contact:

Mark Richert, Esq.
Director, Public Policy, AFB
(202) 469-6833
MRichert@AFB.net

This week, advocates for people who are blind or visually impaired are celebrating two significant milestones.

Described TV

For many months now, advocates have been impatiently waiting for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to act on a proposal to increase the number of hours of television that must be provided with video description, also known as audio description. Most recently, the FCC had indicated that on Thursday, July 13, Commissioners would meet in public session to take up the question of whether to increase the current requirement of 50 hours per calendar quarter up to 87.5 hours for each of the broadcast and nonbroadcast networks covered by the FCC's rules.

In a surprising move, all three of the sitting FCC Commissioners signed off on the described TV increase privately on Tuesday, July 11, making the inclusion of the described TV matter on the July 13 public meeting unnecessary. While this relatively minor procedural changeup in no way detracts from the good news that significant increases in described TV are on the horizon, it is in keeping with the unexpected twists and turns that the proposal to increase described TV took this past week to get to the home stretch.

Last week, advocates were informed that lobbyists on behalf of cable television were urging the FCC to limit the application of any rule increasing the number of required hours of description for networks running substantial portions of repeat programming. These lobbyists argued that networks running as much repeat programming as they do would have a hard time identifying and describing a sufficient number of hours of first- run programming to comply with the FCC's rules. Advocates for people with vision loss were angered by these assertions because, regardless of whatever merits there may be to such assertions, these claims were being made at the proverbial eleventh hour; industry has known literally for years that the FCC could act to increase described TV in this way, and even when the FCC came very close to acting on a proposed description increase last November, cable TV lobbyists did not make these arguments a centerpiece of their concerns.

In any event, FCC Commissioners ultimately rejected much of the cable TV lobby's eleventh-hour demands but did push the effective date for the increase back by an additional six months. Download PDF or Word documents containing the full text of the Report and Order, as well as Commissioners' statements, at the following link: https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-expands-video-description-rules-0.

The rules will take full effect in July, 2018, the date by which the array of the top five nonbroadcast networks that must comply with the requirements will be reassessed and announced. This reassessment could mean that one or more of the nonbroadcast networks that must comply with the description rules today may be replaced by other nonbroadcast networks and no longer enjoy the top five status that brings them under the legal obligation to provide description.

The bottom line, however, is that advocates for described TV have prevailed, and there will be a 75% increase in the number of required hours of described TV provided by the nation's leading broadcast and nonbroadcast networks.

Higher Education and Instructional Materials

Advocates will recall that the vision loss community has been pushing America's colleges and universities to use materials and technologies that are accessible to their students who are blind or visually impaired or who may have other so-called print disabilities. Over time, stand-alone bills dealing with higher education accessibility have been introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate, but complicated and often difficult negotiations with the higher education lobby have left the future of such legislation in doubt.

Today, Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA) and Democrats on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce are announcing the introduction of a comprehensive higher education reform bill aimed at the interests of the cross-disability community. The bill explicitly calls for the development and promulgation of guidelines to assist colleges and universities with their current legal obligations to ensure an accessible instructional experience. Read a press release about the bill at the following link: http://democrats-edworkforce.house.gov/media/press-releases/democrats-unveil- legislation-to-expand-access-to-higher-ed-for-students-with-disabilities-

A PDF of the bill is available at the following link: http://democrats-edworkforce.house.gov/imo/media/doc/ACCESS%20Bill.pdf

The legislation being introduced today, the Improving Access to Higher Education Act, among many other important provisions for college students with disabilities, includes the best elements of the stand-alone bills for which the blindness community has been advocating, namely the call for the development of accessibility guidelines which should offer greater clarity to colleges and universities in their purchasing and use of materials and technologies. However, the bill being introduced today does not include provisions with which many groups both within and outside the vision loss community have had grave concerns. These troubling provisions would essentially trade a university's claim of voluntary compliance with accessibility guidelines for the setting aside of certain disability civil rights enforcement mechanisms available today. The establishment of such a so-called safe harbor and the apparent taking of even some current civil rights protections off the table has been a major point of contention among advocates for students who are blind or visually impaired and has led to a number of groups in the vision loss community witholding their endorsement of such proposals.

However, the Improving Access to Higher Education Act being introduced today does not include the contentious safe harbor language but rather stays focused on the need to give important guidance to colleges and universities while also reinforcing that an array of existing laws, particularly the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, remain in full force and effect and are in no way compromised or limited by the promulgation of voluntary guidelines or best practices for colleges and universities to follow. House Democrats are introducing this bill at this time in anticipation of congressional reauthorization of the Higher Education Act which, just like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), is long overdue for congressional review. It is generally understood that Congress will take up Higher Ed reauthorization before IDEA reauthorization, but there is no certainty as to when consideration of these measures by Congress will occur.

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