Congress Considers Legislation To Redesign Internet Connected Devices For Disabled

Should Congress have the authority to mandate features and functionality of devices with screens that connect to the Internet?   Apparently so based upon a new bill being circulated on the Hill known as the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2009, or H.R. 3101.  The language of the bill aims to make manufacturers of Web enabled devices responsible for ensuring that their products and services meet the needs of individuals with every type of disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.  Advocate groups for disabled persons are praising the legislation but trade groups for electronics manufacturers and service providers are voicing their opposition. The bill includes some of the following measures:

Communications Access

  • Requires access to phone-type equipment and services used over the Internet.
  • Adds improved accountability and enforcement measures for accessibility, including a clearinghouse and reporting obligations by providers and manufacturers.
  • Requires telephone products used with the Internet to be hearing aid compatible.
  • Allows use of Lifeline and Link-up universal service funds (USF) for broadband services.
  • Allocates up to $10 million/year from USF for equipment used by people who are deaf-blind.
  • Clarifies the scope of relay services to include calls between and among people with disabilities and requires Internet-based voice communication service providers to contribute to the Interstate Relay Fund.
  • Requires the FCC to establish a real-time text digital standard to replace the current TTY-to-TTY analog standard.

Video Programming Access

  • Requires closed captioning decoder circuitry in all video programming devices.
  • Extends the closed captioning obligations to television-type video programming distributed over the Internet: covers programming that would otherwise be covered by the FCC’s captioning rules, not user-generated content.
  • Requires easy access to closed captions via remote control and on-screen menus.
  • Requires easy access by blind people to television controls and program selection menus.
  • Restores video description rules and requires access to televised emergency programming for people who are blind or have low vision.

Jenifer Simpson, of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), said, "The time is now to safeguard an accessible communications future for people with disabilities as the nation embraces new broadband and Internet technologies. AAPD applauds Rep. Markey for his leadership. We look now to the Senate for similar leadership in addressing accessible communications technologies."