Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Federal government plans to expand more ADA accessiibility of technology, Web

From The AP:

CHICAGO -- Emergency call centers could be equipped to communicate by text message. Websites might need to be programmed to speak to blind users. Movie theaters might have to install technology to allow the deaf to read captions on small screens mounted at their seats.

These and other proposals will be on the agenda this week as federal officials begin seeking ideas for expanding the Americans with Disabilities Act. Twenty years after the law was adopted, the government wants to move the regulations beyond wheelchair ramps and accessible elevators into cyberspace and personal technology.

The updated regulations could mean sweeping changes across many industries and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

An estimated 40 million blind and deaf Americans stand to reap the biggest benefits, including 43-year-old Peter Berg (pictured), who lost his vision to diabetes in his 20s. Using software that reads content to him, he can surf websites for work, check Facebook and pay his bills online. But he hit a wall while trying to set up an account on a popular website that allows electronic money transfers.

"You needed to click on something, and it wasn't identifiable to the screen reader," said Berg, who provides technical assistance about the ADA.

The effort to update the law begins Thursday with a Justice Department hearing in Chicago. Additional hearings are scheduled for Dec. 16 in Washington and Jan. 10 in San Francisco. The meetings are designed to gather input from the disabled and from industries that may be affected. New rules could take effect by 2012.

Websites are becoming increasingly accessible, in part because of lawsuits. In 2008, Target Corp. agreed in a California class-action settlement to pay $6 million to blind plaintiffs who were unable to use its site.

But what about personal photos on Facebook? Does Facebook have to make sure the photo content can be read aloud to a blind user? Perhaps not. The Justice Department is considering making it clear that some personal, noncommercial content would not be affected.

Will some website operators resist the changes? Disability attorney Lainey Feingold hopes not.

"Web accessibility should not be a new concept to any company with a website," said Feingold, who is based in Berkeley. And the ADA has an "undue burden" defense, which means that no company will have to make changes if doing so would require significant difficulty or expense.

"Fortunately for the millions of Americans with disabilities, making accessibility improvements does not cost a lot of money," she said.

The Justice Department also is considering rules requiring more accessible medical equipment in hospitals, nursing homes and clinics. That might include mammography equipment for women who cannot stand up, adjustable exam tables and mechanical lifts.

Some of the changes are likely to trigger a detailed cost-benefit analysis, which is required when the impact on the economy is likely to surpass $100 million. That figure is likely to be reached for the movie industry if theaters have to install accessible devices for the blind and deaf.

About 1 percent of U.S. theater screens already have that type of equipment. But expanding the technology to others could cost nearly $160 million.