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The Facts the Technology Industry Opponents of H.R. 3101 Hope You Won't Learn

Update! H.R. 3101 Approved by the House Energy & Commerce Committee; the House is expected to take up the bill on Monday, July 26, the 20th anniversary of ADA. Read the full statement.

For further information, contact:

Paul W. Schroeder
Vice President, Programs and Policy, AFB
(202) 469-6832
pschroeder@afb.net

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

The Energy and Commerce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives is preparing to consider H.R. 3101, the Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act. Unfortunately, some technology industry lobbyists have conducted a campaign of misinformation and distortion to undermine H.R. 3101 and to limit its impact on the lives of people with disabilities. It's time they answer some tough questions.

What Track Record of Accessibility Innovation?

To date, only one mobile phone, Apple's iPhone, can be used out of the box by people who are blind or visually impaired, but it is one of the most expensive mobile devices on the market and restricted to only one network. Otherwise, the options are severely limited for consumers with vision loss who can choose between a few mobile devices with access to only a few functions, or buy special software that costs at least two to three times more than the mobile device they need to use. For example, Mobile Speak (software that provides speech output for cell phone menus, text messages, and web sites) costs $295; and, Oratio (the software application that currently provides access to one Blackberry device) costs $449. Rather than building in access features from the start, mobile phone manufacturers generally rely on third-party, expensive specialty software that customers with vision loss must buy on their own on top of the purchase of the mobile device itself. (To their credit, both AT&T and Verizon partially subsidize the cost of such software for some of the phones they provide.)

Nevertheless, the opponents of H.R. 3101 hope to persuade Members of Congress to make the bill as ineffective as possible by claiming that this so-called track record of innovation justifies minimal congressional intervention. A true track record of innovation should surely include more than one accessible device.

Who Pays for Industry's Failed Track Record?

When consumers who are blind or visually impaired must spend more for software to make a mobile device accessible than they would on the device itself, it's a disability tax, plain and simple. Industry seems to be perfectly prepared to flaunt a fictional track record of innovation to distract Congress from the fact that we are all paying for their lack of progress on accessibility.

Why are People with Disabilities Denied Internet Access?

It is plainly obvious that the Internet is the communications infrastructure of the twenty-first century. So, why is H.R. 3101 almost silent regarding access to the Internet? Because, we are told, the same industry that has failed to deliver accessible mobile phones now claims that it should not be directed to address online accessibility for people with vision loss or other disabilities. The disability community must not be locked out of the Internet.

H.R. 3101 is needed to set reasonable and clear expectations for accessibility. And, it must include equipment and services used to access the Internet.

Why Is the Television Industry Discriminating Against People Who Are Blind?

People with vision loss watch and enjoy television. However, TV programs include significant amounts of visual action, scenery, and even on-screen text that is hard or impossible to interpret for the viewer who cannot see the screen. Similar in concept to closed captions, which provide spoken dialogue for those who cannot hear, video description is a technique that artfully incorporates a narrated explanation of visual elements into a television program to make it more accessible for people with vision loss. Like closed captions, it can be turned on or off as needed. Many programs airing on PBS incorporate video description. Ten years ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required television broadcasters and cable operators to begin providing a minimal 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 description. As introduced, H.R. 3101 restores this modest requirement (providing a clear Congressional directive) and authorized the FCC to eventually require additional hours of description. The industry successfully lobbied to remove the additional FCC authority from the Manager's Amendment to H.R. 3101, 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. Television networks are required to caption programs, but they are now saying no to people who are blind. Why are providers of the most popular and important entertainment and information programs refusing to undertake modest measures to include the audience of individuals with vision loss? This is an outrage and Congress must not approve legislation that thwarts accessibility for people with disabilities. Rather than capping the total number of hours in statute, a terrible example of Congressional micromanagement, the FCC must be given ongoing authority to require increased levels of description.

H.R. 3101 must include clear and unambiguous support for a path toward full access to television for people with vision loss.

You can find more about H.R. 3101, including steps you can take today to help ensure that it addresses the needs of the disability community, on the web site of the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT), www.coataccess.org.

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