In the wake of the midterm elections, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have introduced a bill crafted to ensure emerging technologies keep pace with the needs of people with disabilities. The effort is receiving widespread praise from groups such as the Blinded Veterans Association and Communications Service for the Deaf, and lawmakers are pushing for a swift passage in the lame duck session.
The Communications, Video, and Technology Accessibility Act, or CVTA, would amend key portions of the current federal accessibility law by, among other measures, requiring the improvement and expansion of closed captioning and audio description standards for online streaming platforms (in addition to television), the authors said. It would also update requirements to make closed captioning and audio descriptions more easily accessible.
The bill, coauthored by Sen. Edward Markey, would further help to improve access to video programming for people who are deaf and use sign language, and, according to the authors, would empower the Federal Communications Commission to “ensure accessibility regulations keep pace with emergencing technologies, including artificial intelligence and augmented or virtual reality platforms.”
“As technology has rapidly evolved over the last two decades, much of our economy and day-to-day lives have moved online. Unfortunately, accessibility standards have stayed largely the same, leaving people with disabilities behind,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo, senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and a co-author of the bill.
Eshoo stated that, as of last year, more than two-thirds of people who were blind or had low vision reported issues with technologies necessary for the jobs. And around 70% of students who are deaf or hard of hearing reported similar challenges in educational environments, she said.
Sen. Markey, a coauthor of the current federal law — known as the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) — said technologies had changed much since CVAA’s passage. “What hasn’t changed is our obligation to make sure that everyone – including people with disabilities – has equal access to the services and technologies they need to thrive,” he said.
The newer CVTA, meanwhile, was announced with the endorsement of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, who said in statement:
“Accessibility means equal opportunity to create, participate, and communicate—and promoting accessible technology is an important part of our agency’s mission. To do so effectively we need to keep up with emerging technologies. This legislation will help us do just that, by ensuring that people with disabilities have full access to communication products and services that are necessary to participate equally in today’s world, while laying a foundation for accessibility in future technologies.”
Eric Bridges, executive director of the American Council of the Blind, said the CVAA had “laid the foundation for accessible technology and inclusive media for people who are blind, low vision, and Deafblind,” and this update would ensure that critical communications technologies remain accessible and “reiterate our nation’s commitment to accessible media and video content, regardless of how or where it is viewed by consumers.”
“This update to the groundbreaking 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act takes into account how rapidly technology is changing,” added Barbara Kelley, executive director of Hearing Loss Association for America (HLAA). The CVTA would, she said, “ensure people will have access to video conferencing platforms with built-in accessibility features, such as automatic captioning functions that will allow people with hearing loss to be fully part of the conversation.”
“That’s real progress,” Kelley said.
Numerous other groups focused on accessibility have endorsed the bill, include the National Federation of the Blind, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the American Foundation for the Blind, and the United Spinal Association, among others.