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Making the Internet More Accessible

Monday, November 29th, 2010

Businesswoman using smart phone

Television, movies, radio and websites — we’re now enjoying all of them everywhere, whenever we want. Thanks to the Internet, today we can watch movies on our smartphones, TV programs on our laptops and the Web on our TV. As we achieve greater freedom in how we watch, learn and listen, it becomes increasingly important that the content as well as the devices are accessible to the 54 million Americans with disabilities.

Accessibility of Internet content is a complex issue that involves many facets, including concerns about technology, licensing and costs. The World Wide Web consortium has issued a set of guidelines for making websites accessible, but private companies sometimes don’t know their website isn’t accessible enough until its too late.

Case in point: In 2008, Target settled a lawsuit brought forth by the National Federation of the Blind and agreed to pay $3 million for failing to make its website accessible to visually impaired users. Last month, the Justice Department settled a suit against Hilton Worldwide that requires the hotel chain to modify its online reservation systems to let customers with disabilities select and reserve accessible rooms. The agency is also considering revising Title III rules under the Americans with Disabilities Act to include many of the websites of private-sector companies.

A newer phenomenon is watching TV and movies over the Internet. When the ADA was enacted, the Internet as we know it today did not exist. Today the Internet is a hub of information exchange, and is slowly becoming a vehicle for distributing TVs, movies, and other media.

The Federal Communications Commission regulates broadcast and cable TV networks, and a new law signed by President Obama on October 8 will require most TV programs that are “streamed” on sites like NBC’s Hulu and Comcast’s Fancast to be shown with captions for the deaf and hearing impaired. The law is known as the 21st Century Communications & Video Accessibility Act, and becomes part of the Communications Act.

The law will also require a small amount – four hours per week – of audio descriptions for the blind and visually impaired for Internet programs. Devices, too, including TVs, phones, computers and cable/satellite set-top boxes and their menus must now be audibly accessible and capable of displaying closed captioning and video descriptions.

As the federal government ramps up efforts to make Internet and communications technology more accessible, companies in this space should look to their own operations and see how they can start building more accessibility into their products and services. The 21st Century Communications & Video Accessibility Act is a likely harbinger of what’s to come in the near future. The good news for people with disabilities is that accessible Internet and content is getting closer to becoming a reality, which will pave the way for more opportunities for this group in the workplace and life space.