On June 26th, Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts re-introduced the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (H.R. 3101). This is a pretty comprehensive bill that was developed to ensure that individuals with disabilities have access to emerging Internet Protocol-based communication and video programming technologies in the 21st century.
There has been significant legislation and regulation in the past to address access issues for people with disabilities to communications systems such as the telephone and television. Specifically, Section 255 of the Communications Act (47 U.S.C. §225) requires telecommunications providers and manufacturers to make their services and equipment accessible to and usable by people with disabilities if readily achievable. And Section 713 of the Communications Act (47 U.S.C. §613) which requires that video programming distributors provide closed captioning on 100 percent of new English video programming.
The problem? Today, there are web-based video services that offer television programs, movies, and web clips distributed over the Internet, but most of them do not provide closed captioning, even when the programming previously was captioned. In addition, cell phones and other mobile devices are being used more and more for communication and even entertainment. The legislation that offered protections for people with disabilities to ensure access does not cover new technologies. VoiIP and IP-based technologies are not always defined as being a telecommunications service. What that means is that they don’t fall under the access requirements in the Communications Act, and so would not be required to provide closed captions or video description.
Let me give you an example of how the law is out-of-date…the telephone. Federal law requires phones over the regular public telephone network to be hearing aid compatible. But, it is not clear whether this requirement carries over to smart phones used for communication over the Internet
So what does the bill do:
1. H.R. 3101 would require that mobile and other Internet-based telecommunications devices have accessible user interfaces, and offer people with disabilities use of a full range of text messaging and other popular services that are currently largely inaccessible;
2. Restore the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) modest video description rules and grant them the authority to expand such regulations, and require emergency announcements and similar information to be accessible to people with disabilities through audible presentation of on-screen alerts,
4. Ensure that video programming offered via the Internet will be described, and call for all devices that receive and playback video programming to employ accessible user interfaces and allow ready access to description; and
5. Strengthen consumers’ ability to enforce their rights to Communications and video accessibility through the establishment of a clearinghouse of information about service and equipment accessibility and usability, a meaningful FCC complaint process that holds industry accountable for their accessibility obligations, and judicial review of FCC action to ensure the Commission’s own accountability.
In this new era of electronic and internet-based communications, it is critical that the disability access requirements in telecommunications legislation continue to actually impact what communications systems people are actually using. All you have to do is look around a hearing room to see how prevalent mobile and web-based technology is. It is visible on buses and trains, in stores and on the streets; people are constantly using hand-held electronic devices to communicate, to access information, to interact with others and to engage in the larger world around them. The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act offers the best opportunity to expand current law and requirements to allow that same access for people with disabilities as we move to a much more digital, and mobile future.
Disability and New Media (Day In Washington post for January 10, 2008) – My previous commentary on this legislation
The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act – Read it for yourself
Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology – Additional information on H.R. 3101 and other technology access issues