Bill seeks to make electronics accessible to blind, deaf

Eric Bridges leaves the American Council of the Blind in Arlington, where he is an advocacy director.
Eric Bridges leaves the American Council of the Blind in Arlington, where he is an advocacy director. (Mark Abramson/the Washington Post)
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By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

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.

"This is simply about inclusion. You have an industry that is known for innovation, but they don't have a cultural understanding of what universal design truly means," said Rosaline Crawford, a legal director at the National Association of the Deaf.

The Consumer Electronics Association was at first opposed to legislation that would create blanket requirements for cellphones, set top boxes and other electronics. But the trade group has come to agree on some points and now says a case-by-case analysis of how individual technologies can be more inclusive is a good idea.

Captioning for a television on your wrist, for instance, would be difficult to achieve.


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