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Congress passes bill to make Internet, smartphones accessible for blind, deaf

Congress passed a bill on Tuesday night that would make the Internet and mobile phones more accessible to people with disabilities. The legislation will go to President Obama next week to sign into law.

Advocates for the blind and deaf say the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act would ensure that Web sites and makers of consumer electronics consider the vision- and hearing-impaired, who have been left behind as more communications tools move to the Web.

Specifically, the legislation allows blind consumers to choose from a broader selection of cellphones with speech software that calls out phone numbers and cues users on how to surf the Internet. It makes new TV shows that are captioned available online with closed-captioning. TV remote controls would have a button that makes it easier to get closed-captioning.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), author of the House bill, said the American Disabilites Act 20 years ago mandated physical ramps into buildings.

"Today, individuals with disabilities need online ramps to the Internet so they can get to the Web from wherever they happen to be,” Markey said.

“The ADA mandated physical ramps into buildings. Today, individuals with disabilities need online ramps to the Internet so they can get to the Web from wherever they happen to be,” said Markey.

For more on the topic, please check out an earlier story outlining the issues:

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; A10

Blind and deaf consumers, who have fought to make home phones and television more accessible, say they are being left behind on the Web and many mobile devices. Touch-based smartphone screens confound blind people who rely on buttons and raised type. Web video means little to the deaf without captioning.

But legislation is in the works to put pressure on consumer electronics companies that revolutionized an earlier generation of technology for the vision- and hearing-impaired.

"Whether it's a Braille reader or a broadband connection, access to technology is not a political issue -- it's a participation issue," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), the author of a House bill aimed at making the Internet more accessible to people with disabilities. "We've moved from Braille to broadcast, from broadband to the BlackBerry. We've moved from spelling letters in someone's palm to the PalmPilot. And we must make all of these devices accessible."

The consumer electronics, entertainment and communications industries have been slow to include people with disabilities, some lawmakers and advocates say. Big companies have fought government regulators dictating new technical requirements, saying that the industry is better equipped to make its own engineering decisions.

Apple's iPhone has built-in speech software for the blind, but other smartphones require users to buy costly programs for the same functions. Some broadcasters put videos on the Internet with captions, but not all.

That can make inaccessible everything from political videos that are now common on the Web to pop culture clips that turn viral.

Last week, for instance, the "White Board Girl" clip of a fictitious employee quitting on a dry erase board or JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater's comments fresh out of jail didn't have closed-captioning for the deaf or hard of hearing.

Markey's legislation and a companion bill in the Senate would make mandatory some of the changes in technology that industry is slow to adopt on its own. It would allow blind consumers to choose from a broader selection of cellphones with speech software that calls out phone numbers and cues users on how to surf the Internet. Legislation would make new TV shows that are captioned available online with closed-captioning. Remote controls would have a button that makes it easier to get closed captioning on TV sets.

But gaps would remain. Videos made and shared by users on YouTube and Facebook wouldn't require captioning. Vision-impaired cellphone users will in many cases have to download speech software at an extra cost.

For full story, read here.

By Cecilia Kang  | September 29, 2010; 10:11 AM ET
Categories:  Consumers, Mobile, VIDEOS  
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Comments

Great news! With the advances of our technology it is only fitting that those who are disabled have access as well.

Posted by: lcollins2780 | September 29, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

Not wheel chair accessible, their is a store at the corner (Charlie's) of Wade Rd., and Sumner St., SE, that does not have a ramp for the disabled, this store can afford it, they have the highist price's in DC, a box of salt cost's $129.00 (not even name brand)I have called many times (2 year's ago) and the problem has Not been corrected, the people in wheel chair's has to ask people to purchase item's for the, the employee's in the store has even come from behind the counter to by item's for them, When will this be corrected? Why is this issue being overlooked, Payoff perhaps?

Posted by: onesugar | September 29, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

This is great newss. Not enouph smart phones are usable by the blind and visually challenged, as the article states.
And many a website, or parts of them, do not zoom or magnify well.

Posted by: Hattrik | September 29, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

Let's give Apple credit for being way ahead on the curve (no pun intended) on this one. They have done a great job and no doubt will continue to do so. For those who claim they are a closed company, this is a good example of being open where it really counts.

Posted by: leicaman | September 29, 2010 5:11 PM | Report abuse

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