This month, as Congress returns from break, health care reform is not the only imperative issue on their plate. A new bill will aim to make content on the Internet more friendly to those with disabilities.
The "21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2009" (H.R. 3101) plans to modernize disability standards by making such accessibility features as closed captioning, video description and real-time texting a standard for Internet technologies.
The bill was introduced by Mass. Rep. Ed Markey on June 26, with support from the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT), an alliance whose primary goal is to ensure that people with disabilities are not left behind as technology moves further into the digital age.
“When we first sat down a couple years ago we realized that the communication act that the FCC regulates and administers was not keeping up with all the changes going on in communications, particular with everything starting to move through the internet,” said Jenifer Simpson, Senior Director of Government Affairs at the American Association of People with Disabilities, a founding member of COAT.
Currently, some Web sites that let you watch television or movies over the Internet - such as Netflix or iTunes - do not offer closed captioning, or offer very little captioning. By law they are not required to, because closed captioning standards enforced by the FCC do not extend to content broadcasted over the Internet.
“In many cases the movies or television they are showing and distributing had captioning in it initially. Once it goes up on the Internet that caption disappeared,” said Simpson.
The new bill would make closed captioning mandatory for large Internet television and movie distributors, excluding user-based sites such as YouTube. The bill would also lift an outdated standard enforcing closed captioning only on TV sets of 13 inches or greater, opening up captioning to smart phones and other portable devices that display video.
The H.R. 3101 bill also aims to bring back a revoked standard on video description for the blind, a technology where a narrator depicts a televised scene in-between character dialogue. A 2002 regulation incorporating video description lasted for five months, and was dissolved after a court ordered that the FCC had no right to regulate such a service.
“We’re not asking for 100%, we’re just asking for what we had before [4 hours a week],” said Simpson, “and give the FCC the authority to figure out if the industry can in fact do more than that.”
One of the most intriguing new technologies under the bill is a call for further research into real-time texting, and to make it a possible standard in cell phone communication.
Real-time texting allows text to be instantaneously viewed by the receiver as the sender types it, eliminating the need for a send button.
The service would initially act as a quicker response mechanism for the deaf when texting in 911 emergencies, but also could change the way all people communicate digitally. Texting conversations made in real time would flow much more like actual spoken conversations.
“I think that we’ll actually see situations where people are talking and typing at the same time," Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Research and Development Center, which is spearheading the new technology, told the Washington Times.
As the Internet becomes a more vital component to everyday life, the H.R. 3101 bill not only protects those currently left behind due to disabilities, but also looks towards the future.
“All this stuff we’re talking about is really going to help America as we’re aging,” said Simpson.
The bill currently has six co-sponsors in Congress, as well as an official endorsement by Verizon and AT&T. Unlike the party politics that has Washington split over health care reform, this bill seems to have a fighting chance.
“As long as people perceive this as not particularly partisan, I think we will be okay,” said Simpson. “Everyone knows blindness and deafness knows no party.”
Friday, September 4, 2009
From the NY Daily News:
Posted by BA Haller at 9:01 PM