Bill seeks to make electronics accessible to blind, deaf

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.

"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.

Generally, the association said, it prefers voluntary changes by the manufacturers, saying that legislation has the danger of being quickly outdated in the fast-changing Web industry. Google, for example, has introduced voice-to-text captions that can be used for some videos online. But Crawford said the application's accuracy rate is about 80 percent.

"The marketplace is better off when innovators design technology, not when government officials try to change technology," said Jason Oxman, senior vice president at the Consumer Electronics Association.

"But what we've heard is a very legitimate goal by Congress that we share."

Yet even everyday tools that have been taken for granted are still not accessible for people with disabilities, some say.

When Eric Bridges, 32, moved to Arlington County three years ago, he installed cable service for broadband Internet, phone and television. He and his wife are blind and tech enthusiasts who do their research with computer software that uses speech to guide them through Web sites. When Bridges was in the market for a cellphone, he was torn between his Samsung Jack smartphone and an iPhone because he'd have to separately buy and download speech software to help him use the Web browser and send e-mail.

But for their basic TV service, the couple didn't notice until months later that they were paying for a video recording service built into their set top box fees. They can't use the feature, which is based on text menus and with no cues for the blind.

"I simply can't use this. I can't read the menus, and there is no software to help me. So I was paying for something that was useless to me," said Bridges, a director of advocacy for the American Council of the Blind. That's why he has pushed for legislation that would prod companies to make changes more quickly.

There are about 50 million vision- and hearing-impaired people in the United States, he said.

"If we aren't being included, we have to believe we don't represent an important market to them," he said.

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