Monday, June 23

On-screen information inaccessibility

Greetings. Here's another article on access technology, this time from the Washington Post. This article addresses the issues that both the blind and deaf face in accessing on-screen information which may not be accessible to them. Enjoy.

Access Denied
The Blind or Deaf Can Feel Left Behind As the Tools of Technology Advance  

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008; D01  

Olivia Norman's fingers fly across her laptop keyboard, dexterously
tapping out instant messages to friends and entering Google searches
without committing a single typo. A minute later, she's listening
intently to the voice cues that help her read e-mail and send text
messages on her Motorola Q smartphone.  

Norman is blind, so the cues help her navigate the tiny keypad and
understand the words on the screen.  

She is not able to order an on-demand movie from Comcast because she
can't read the on-screen menus. And she had trouble setting up an
iTunes account because the speech-synthesizing software she relies on
couldn't find the right link on the Web site.  

"It's a curse and a blessing at the same time," said Norman, 27, who
lives in Cleveland Park. "The Internet has revolutionized my life,
but there are basic things that are still completely inaccessible to
people like me."  

In many ways, Web technologies and mobile devices have created new
ways for blind and deaf consumers to find information and connect
with friends. But as entertainment and communications tools
increasingly take digital form, some people with disabilities feel
left behind. Online videos are not required to have captions for
those who can't hear, for example, and ticker-style emergency
messages are not narrated for those who can't see.  

A number of efforts by various groups have tried to address some of
these hurdles over the past few years.  

For example, the Federal Communications Commission last year ruled
that Internet phone services, such as Vonage, that connect to the
public telephone network must be compatible with hearing aids and
relay services, as traditional phone companies' service is. The
agency also decided that wireless carriers must ensure that at least
half of their cellphones are compatible with hearing aids.  

Five years ago, the FCC set rules requiring video operators to
provide "video description" services that narrate scenes for people
with visual impairments. But those rules were overturned in court
when movie studios argued that the FCC did not have authority to make
such rules.  

Today, a Democratic congressman plans to introduce legislation that
would restore those requirements, as well as bring other big changes
to the way Internet phone and video are designed.  

"Now we're full-blown into this digital era, and we, in general, need
to upgrade the laws that ensure that there is accessibility for all
the people who use these new technologies," said Rep. Edward J.
Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on
Telecommunications and the Internet.  

The bill, also sponsored by Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.), calls
for new rules for devices that display video programming. Federal law
requires all TV sets with screens larger than 13 inches to display
closed captions. Under the new legislation, all gadgets from MP3
music players to cellphones would be required to show captions.  

Devices would also be obligated to provide video description services
and read aloud emergency messages that scroll across the bottom of
the screen. And they would have to be designed so that on-screen
menus are usable by people with disabilities.  

In addition, Markey's bill would extend existing Internet phone
service requirements to Skype and similar services that let users
exchange voice, text or video communications over the Internet.  

Various advocates of people with disabilities have lined up in
support of the bill, arguing that it's high time that the law spelled
out technology standards that consider the needs of consumers with
visual or hearing impairments.  

But tech industry groups say that such a list of requirements will
dampen the innovation that's already making these products and
services available and more accessible. They also argue that new
regulations will drive up the price of products for all consumers.  

"No one thought about these things five years ago, and yet these
technologies are coming down the pike on their own and we need to
make sure we don't stifle that growth," said K. Dane Snowden, vice
president of state and external affairs for CTIA, the wireless
industry's main lobby group in Washington.  

Robert McConnell, a 23-year-old student at Gallaudet University in
Northeast Washington, said Web cameras, instant-messaging programs
and his BlackBerry allow him to communicate in ways that were not
available to previous generations of the deaf and hard of hearing.
"We live through our thumbs," he said of his dependence on his
cellphone to send text messages and photos of sign-language sequences.  

But video clips and many TV shows that are streamed online are often
unintelligible to him because they lack captions. At the moment, it
is left up to the producers of online content to decide whether to
provide captions. CBS's Web site, for example, does not have captions
for all of the network's content, but, a joint venture
between NBC and Fox, often does.  

Similarly, Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate,
has put captions on many of the videos on his campaign Web site,
McConnell has observed. Officials with Republican candidate Sen. John
McCain did not say whether his site provides captions for videos.  

Captions are difficult to post with online videos because there is no
common standard for how they are decoded and displayed, said Larry
Goldberg, director of media access at WGBH, a public broadcasting
station in Boston. The station is coordinating a coalition called the
Internet Captioning Forum, formed last year by AOL, Google, Microsoft
and Yahoo, which is working to draw up captioning standards for
content providers and Web sites.  

The proposed bill would not extend to the homemade clips posted on
YouTube and other video sharing sites but would require major TV
networks and movie studios to include captions with Web-bound content.  

"The problem is every video player -- RealPlayer, Windows Media
Player, QuickTime -- works differently," Goldberg said.  

Although made-for-TV content is required to have captions, they are
not always easily repurposed for the Web. For example, if a half-hour
show is broken up into smaller clips for the Web site, the
prerecorded captions "can be garbled or destroyed."  

Some companies have created programs that cater to deaf and blind
people. FeedRoom, a New York company, has created a video player that
can display captions. Audiopoint, based in Rockville, has a
text-to-speech program that reads e-mail and news alerts over the
phone in a robotic voice.  

But the software can cost hundreds of dollars, and compatible devices
can cost in the thousands, said Karen Peltz Strauss, who helped form
the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology.  

She said she thinks federal action would help make the technologies
more affordable.  

But Vincent Morris, communications director for the Information
Technology Industry Council, argued that government action would also
lead to higher prices for all consumers.  

"Our goal would be to craft something that works for the broadest
number of people, and we're not convinced this bill is a good example
of that," he said.

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