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FCC Talks on Broadband for People with Disabilities

March 10 2010 | by

Rosaline Crawford; Director of the Law and Advocacy Center, National Association of the Deaf

The Federal Communications Commission, getting ready to officially present its national broadband plan to Congress next week, is holding a conference in Washington, D.C. — live streamed with open captions — to discuss what needs to be in the plan in order to ensure equal access to high-speed Internet content for people with disabilities.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski kicked off today’s meeting with a sober truth. “Historically, it has taken years for people with disabilities to get even close to acheiving equal access in communications,” Genachowski says.” This includes cell phones and computers — but the FCC is determined not to let such an event happen with high-speed Internet. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, “we have a mandate to address the barriers of broadband for people with disabilities,” he adds.

It’s not just web programming — it’s everything associated with broadband, including devices like cell phones, services and software. While some assistive technology exists to mitigate access issues for people with disabilities, “most assistive technology is too expensive or not operable with the latest technologies,” he says. Genachowski made a nod to insurance companies’ unwillingness to pay for gadgets like iPhones, where many specialized apps can help people with disabilities.

Genachowski did highlight some pioneers in the assistive technology field, including Apple’s iPhone — complete with screen reader and support for captions — and Windows 7 from Microsoft, which also has a basic built-in screen reader and a new text-to-speech engine. He gave props to Google’s decision last week to include voice-recognition-driven captions for all YouTube videos, and to ABC Disney’s decision to include captions in long-form programming on the web.

With a broadband plan, the FCC head is steadfast in his belief that the U.S. “can achieve the ambitious goal of delivering high-speed broadband connectivity to 90 percent of American homes by 2020.”

According to the American Association of People with Disabilities, one of the sponsors of today’s conference, the benefits of high-speed Internet for this group are far-ranging, and includes:

- Live streaming video and instant text communication, which helps people who are deaf, or hard of hearing, and those with speech disabilities reduce their dependency on the phone.

- New services that people with physical disabilities traditionally could not participate in, such as attending classes remotely, online medical consultations and applying for and securing jobs.

- Programs that read text and describe visual contents aloud in a synthetic voice or a Braille display enable people who are blind or visually impaired to search the Internet, understand videos, and communicate online.

- Video relay services, which require high speed Internet to run, allow people who are deaf to have phone conversations in their native sign language by means of an online interpreter.

Also speaking in today’s conference are members of the disability community, government officials and academics. Participants will discuss how and whether the recommendations in the plan will adequately address the accessibility and affordability barriers faced by people with disabilities.

The speaker list includes Kareem Dale, Special Assistant to President Obama for Disability Policy; Vint Cerf; VP & Chief Internet Evangelist at Google; Rosaline Crawford, Director of the Law and Advocacy Center, National Association of the Deaf; Susan Fox, Vice President of Government Relations for Disney.

WEe’ll also hear from Larry Goldberg, the Director of Media Access at WGBH; Link Hoewing, the Assistant VP of Internet and Technology Issues at Verizon; Fernando R. Laguarda; Vice President at Time Warner Cable; Laura Ruby, Director of Accessibility Policy & Standards for Trustworthy Computing at Microsoft; and Gregg Vanderheiden, Director of the Trace R&D Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Watch the FCC talk live at http://reboot.fcc.gov/live/

By Suzanne Robitaille

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