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Web Content Accessibility Law Needs More Brawn

October 5 2010 | by

hulu on handheld

After passing in the Senate last week, the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which will improve access to mobile content for the deaf and blind communities, will soon become law.

This means deaf consumers can now watch closed-captioned shows and movies on the Web on their PC or mobile devices. Before, closed-captions were only available on TVs. Blind consumers will also benefit from limited hours of video-description services on the Web, and the law will require touch-screen smartphones that have Web features to be made accessible to them.

Where do people with disabilities go from here, in this brave new world? Clearly, this law is an important step toward enabling deaf and blind people to view and understand mobile content on a par with non-disabled consumers. For example, a deaf business executive traveling to the other side of the country can now open up her laptop in the comfort of her hotel room and view a previously aired T.V. show with captions on Hulu, which plays NBC programs.

However, the newly accessible video content is only the tip of the iceberg. The major broadcast and cable networks that are covered under the new law produce about 100,000 hours of video content a year from their TV programs. On YouTube — which is not covered by the new law — almost 13 million hours of video content are uploaded annually, and that number is increasing. Over 99% of this Web-exclusive content is not closed-captioned or video-described, nor will it be required to be, under the new law.

Consumer electronics makers and content providers should make better efforts to to create accessible mobile content on the Web, from Netflix on-demand movie streaming to Web-exclusive videos. Or perhaps the law should be expanded to require them to do so. Companies should work together to develop appropriate technologies to make this happen now, and for future technologies like 3-D video.

Given the high demand among millions of deaf and blind consumers for accessible mobile content, companies that invest early in technologies to meet this demand will realize substantial long-term returns on their investments. Google is already doing it. It developed an automatic transcription feature for its YouTube channel, making much of its video content accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. While I, as a deaf YouTube viewer, would prefer that the automatic transcription feature properly label the future king of England as “Prince William” and not “Print Will Jam,” at least it is a start.

Almost every new technology feature that addresses accessibility issues for the blind or deaf will benefit all consumers. As Paul Schroeder of the American Foundation for the Blind pointed out to the Wall Street Journal on the topic of smartphone accessibility, “Most of my sighted colleagues complain ceaselessly that they can’t see their cellphones.”

This is not the first time this helps all consumers, and this will not be the last. Text messaging was developed in the 1970’s to enable deaf people to communicate with each other. Today, everyone’s texting to each other. The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act is, thus, a great opportunity for people with disabilities to enjoy mobile content more easily than ever, and also benefit people without disabilities. Thus, mobile content accessibility is a win-win situation — now only if we can get companies to realize it soon enough.

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