Last week, President Obama signed the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010
into law. The Act will have an impact on broadcasting and telecommunications.
As one example, cell phones or smartphones with Internet browsers will have to ensure that the functions of browsers, including the ability to launch the browser itself, are "accessible to and usable by individuals who are blind or have a visual impairment." As with several of the provisions in the Act, there is an out: "unless doing so is not achievable."
The Act requires the FCC Chairman to establish the "Video Programming and Emergency Access Advisory Committee," which will consist of representatives from video programming distributors and providers, manufacturers of broadcast and consumer equipment, programming producers, the broadcast television industry, and other "individuals with technical and engineering expertise as the Chairman determines appropriate." Representatives of national organization representing accessibility advocates, including individuals with disabilities and the elderly, must also be included.
The Committee is also charged with identifying new protocols and procedures for closed captioning, including video programming delivered over the Internet. Consumer-generated videos are excluded.
Video description--an audio feed describing what is happening on the screen so people with impaired vision can enjoy TV programming--used to be an FCC requirement until the law was overturned by the courts before it was widely implemented. While simply adding another audio channel to the ATSC multiplex isn't that difficult, adding a video description channel to broadcast and Internet programming will certainly complicate production and distribution.
Receiver manufacturers are likely to have a more difficult time incorporating video description into receiver designs, as well as meeting other requirements in the Act. For example, digital apparatus "designed to receive or play back video programming transmitted in digital format simultaneous with sound", including programming transmitted using Internet Protocol, if achievable, have to be "designed, developed and fabricated using so that control of appropriate built-in apparatus functions are accessible to and usable by individuals who are blind or visually impaired...."
Another provision of the Act requires adding audio output to menus or other visual indicators so they are "accessible to and usable by individuals who are blind or visually impaired in real time."
A big question, of course, is whether adding all of these features to every product will make them too complicated for anyone to easily use. The Act sets laudable goals, but the true test of its effectiveness will be whether the program providers and distributors and manufacturers can develop technology that provides accessibility while keeping its operation simple and unobtrusive. A good place to start would be eliminating the need to travel through a maze of menus to make a simple change in audio channel or closed captioning displayed.