Monday, April 26, 2010

FCC says it plans an ambitious accessibility agenda to break down barriers for people with disabilities going online

From The Hill in D.C.. In the picture, Jim Reed, a Montana graduate student who is going blind from a degenerative eye disease, uses a text-to-speech screen reader on his home computer. He wants to make the Web more blind-friendly.

Only 42 percent of people with disabilities have high-speed Internet services at home, and 39 percent of all non-adopters have disabilities, according to a white paper on technology accessibility issues released today by the Federal Communications Commission.

"This is not acceptable, and we are implementing an ambitious accessibility agenda to ensure that people with disabilities are not left behind," said Joel Gurin, Chief of the FCC's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau.

The National Broadband Plan recommends creating task forces in both the Executive Branch and FCC and modernizing accessibility laws and related subsidy programs.

The FCC plans to launch its Accessibility and Innovation Forum in July and initiate rulemaking proceedings in the next few months.

The white paper notes that people with disabilities have been "pioneers" in embracing technologies that later became mainstream. Voice command technologies, for example were created to help people with vision and mobility disabilities, but are now used in cars and e-readers. Predictive-text software that finishes words that people type in an email or search engines was also initially created for people with disabilities.

"With broadband technologies, we have the opportunity to consider accessibility issues relatively early in the deployment process and ensure that people with disabilities share fully in the benefits of broadband," the white paper said.

The white paper recommends that the government improve the enforcement of existing accessibility laws, coordinate policy and spending priorities, and update the regulations.

This is also an issue Congress has looked at in the past. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), for example, introduced a bill to require web services--such as online videos--to be accessible with subtitles and other features.