Update: House Approves Far-Reaching Captioning and Accessibility Bill

Legislation that could make a wide variety of communications and video technologies more accessible to millions of Americans with disabilities is working its way through Congress.

Monday (July 26), the U.S. House passed the the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, sponsored by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. The bill goes next to the Senate.

The bill includes new provisions to expand the availability of audio descriptions of television shows to media markets all across the country; new requirements to ensure that closed captioned television programs are also closed captioned for viewing on the Internet; and measures to increase the ability for Americans who are blind to access the Internet from smart phones.

To get there, the bill establishes an FCC advisory committee to examine issues related to closed captioning, video description, access to emergency information, access to video programming guides and menus, and access to video equipment user interfaces. It will require most video devices, large and small, to include the capacity for audio descriptions of video content, and for closed captioning of audio content.

Another provision directs the FCC to make rules on video captioning for video over the Internet. This provision exempts consumer-generated media.

That provision does not specifically mention or exempt government-made video. An order from President Obama has already mandated such accessibility for government electronic and information technologies, with specific direction to come.

An amendment that passed unanimously during markup will also provide up to $10 million a year out of the FCC’s existing Telecommunications Relay Fund for the specialized equipment that low-income deaf-blind Americans need to access the Internet, use special text telephones to communicate, and access advanced communications services such as email.

“As the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) approaches on Monday [July 26], we took a big step closer today toward breaking down the walls of exclusion in the digital era and ensuring that all Americans can access the latest video and communications technologies that many people take for granted every day,” Markey said in a statement.

“In the 21st century, individuals with disabilities must be able to get on to the Internet from wherever they happen to be--using online ramps to the Web just as the ADA mandated physical ramps into buildings 20 years ago. Back then, Americans with disabilities couldn’t get around if buildings weren’t wheelchair accessible; today it’s about being Web accessible,” Markey said.

The complete bill text as passed out of committee is here. --Sanjay Talwani