January 21, 2008

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) announced its support of a recently released US House of Representatives discussion draft titled 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act. This draft, if passed, would upgrade telecommunications laws to mandate access to current and future cutting edge technologies.

Through its leadership in the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT), the NAD has been working with Congress on this draft for many months and reports that it is pleased with its release.

Since the early 1990s, federal law has required accessibility features and services, such as telecommunications relay services, captioning decoder circuitry in televisions, and closed captioning for television programming. While these requirements have served the deaf and hard-of-hearing community well, they have not kept pace with, nor have been updated to apply to, newer technologies such as mobile devices or the Internet. As a result, deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals now are experiencing decreased access to telecommunications devices and services.

NAD reports that this draft US House of Representatives bill would amend the Communications Act to remedy this lack of access. Among other things, the organization says it would:
    ▪     Expand the scope of devices that must display closed captions. Today, television sets with screens that are 13 inches or larger must be capable of displaying captions, but other devices do not have to meet this requirement. Under this draft, captioning requirements would apply to all devices (regardless of screen size) that display video programming transmitted simultaneously with sound, including those that display programming carried over the Internet.
    ▪     Clarify that video programming includes what is provided by, or comparable to, that provided by a television broadcast station, even if the programming is distributed over the Internet. Current captioning requirements apply only to broadcast, cable, or satellite programming. This new provision would have the effect of extending captioning requirements to comparable programming shown over the Internet.
    ▪     Require manufacturers of devices used to display video programming, including those that are Internet based, to ensure that these devices are accessible by people with disabilities. Manufacturers also would be required to provide a conspicuous means of accessing closed captioning, including a button on remote controls and first-level access to this feature when available through on-screen menus.

“Deaf and hard of hearing consumers are tired of being denied access to today’s technologies because these have not been created with accessibility in mind,” says NAD President Bobbie Beth Scoggins. “If passed, this draft bill will remedy many of the problems we have had with telecommunications access. It simply is not acceptable to leave out 30-plus million deaf and hard-of-hearing people from access to cutting-edge telecommunications devices and services. The NAD urges U.S. Congressional members to take decisive action to close the digital divide in an expeditious manner.”