Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Ramp Up to Accessing 21st Century Communication Technology

By Shannon Ramsay, CFILC's Information and Assistance Advocate

So many of the ways that we communicate vital information are not fully accessible to people with disabilities. The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (from here forward referred to as “the Act”) was signed into law by President Obama on October 8, 2010 to give people with disabilities access to these communications services.  This overview article is the first in a series of posts which will explain the provisions of the Act.

 The act is broken down into two major sections, each of which is made up of several subparts.  In the first major section, the act addresses barriers to communication technology, such as the incompatibility of smart phones with hearing aids and inaccessibility of content on the Internet.  The second major section of the act focuses on increasing access to video programming through closed captioning and audio description.          
Currently, many of us who wear hearing aids experience interference on certain types of phones, such as smart phones, or we are not able to hear the sounds on the phone clearly enough. These incompatibilities cause us to miss critical pieces of information which are necessary for us to communicate effectively. I have experienced situations in which I have needed to take my hearing aids out to hear conversations on my phone.  There are provisions in the first section of the act which address the problem of hearing aid compatibility with certain types of phones.     

Right now a large amount of online information is still not easily within the reach of people with disabilities.  We are denied equal access to information about employment and educational opportunities because far too many websites are still not designed with screen reader access or closed captioning integrated into their design.  Also, many times assistive technology comes into conflict with Internet hardware and software preventing web access. Provisions are stated in the first section of the Act to reduce these barriers and to make it possible for us to check e-mail, shop for music, apply for jobs, follow the latest news, and track the amount of funds we have in our bank accounts as easily as our peers without disabilities.

Frequently, people with disabilities become stranded and lose access to the technology and personal assistance we need during disasters such as floods and earthquakes because emergency information is not presented in an accessible format. The first section of the Act includes provisions to ensure that emergency service providers make information about disasters and disaster relief services accessible through audio description and closed captioning.  In the second section, the Act states that an emergency information advisory committee should be established to come up with the best methods for increasing access to emergency information.

Furthermore, the first section of the Act contains provisions requiring the establishment  of a relay system which will assist deaf individuals to communicate more easily by phone with people who can hear.  The first section also includes requirements for the distribution of communications equipment for people who are deaf-blind. 

 The second major section of the Act mandates that video programming must be made more accessible through the increased availability of closed captioning and audio description.  

 All of the provisions of this act are intended to set new standards so that Americans with disabilities can take advantage of the technology our economy depends on.  This is especially important in today's job market when every worker needs the necessary skills to compete for the jobs of the future. 

 If you would like to get more information about the history of the law and read the entire text of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, click here

What barriers have you encountered to communications services and video programming and how do you think this act will help you overcome them?             

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