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Disability Community Pushes Bill Requiring Internet Close-Captioning

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WASHINGTON, June 20 – The community of persons with disabilities has been rallying behind a measure, introduced in Congress on Thursday, that would require companies that make devices or offer communication networks to accommodate persons with disabilities.

The bill, the “Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2008,” was introduced by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications the the Internet, and Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M.

The bill, which is similar to a draft version released last December, would require cellular companies, handset manufacturers and Internet providers to include aids for deaf and blind people using Internet-based telephones, as well as including Internet and voice closed-captioning on video programming over cellular devices, according to the bill, which had not been given a number by Friday.

The bill would also require that the FCC initiate a proceeding to “identify methods to convey emergency information in a manner accessible to individuals who are blind or visually-impaired.” That language is less exacting than the draft version of the bill, which would have had the agency study ways to “identify methods to render on-screen-displayed text” for persons with disabilities.

Television programs have been required to utilitize “closed captioning,” or to stream words of the text being broadcast, except in situations in which the device is 13 inches or smaller.

Speaking at a Wednesday event co-hosted by the Alliance for Public Technology (APT) and the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT), Jeff Kramer of Verizon Communications said that since the draft was available in December, “Verizon now has video customer service in American sign language.”

“No one should be left behind” in technology, advancement said Lisa Hamlin, of the Hearing Loss Association of America, about how much of today’s technology is no accessible to the disabled. Both spoke at “Digital Communication in the 21st Century: Ensuring Access by People With Disabilities,” co-hosted by APT at COAT.

After the bill was formally introduced, APT President Kenneth Peres, and an economist with the Communications Workers of America union, said: “APT applauds the efforts of Reps. Markey and Wilson to ensure that everyone, including people with disabilities, has access to the digital technologies that are becoming our most dominant form of communication.”

Mark Richet, a blind member of the American Foundation for the Blind, said that the bill would help the disabled community a great deal. Under the bill, he said, blind children will get their textbooks on time to start the school year. He also expressed his hope that copyright laws would be modified so as to make modified copies suitable for the blind without engaging in copyright infringement.

At the event, Joel Schneider, president of Audio Description Associates for National Captioning Institute, showcased an online video description and captioning system.

The goal of these technologies, and of the bill, said session host Karen Peltz Strauss, a member of APT’s board of directors and co-chair of COAT, was to “expand broadband to everyone.”

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1 Comment

  1. Interesting article by David Oxenford, entitled Closed Captions and Video Description – The First Step to FCC Regulation of On-Line Media?” about this bill.

    Oxenford writes: “With this bill, and various other proposals that have surfaced in recent months, it seems more and more likely that, as the Internet becomes even more important in the provision of broadcast-like programming in the future, the FCC may be called on by Congress to impose broadcast-like restrictions on that programming.”

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