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Legislation designed to ensure disability access to telecommunications technology re-introduced

July 31st, 2009  |  Deborah Hammonds

>In an attempt to make sure people with disabilities are not left behind as changes in technology race ahead, U.S. Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass) has re-introduced the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (H.R. 3101) (Act). According to a summary posted on the website THOMAS (http://thomas.loc.gov/), the Act’s goal is “to establish new safeguards for disability access to ensure that people with disabilities are not left behind as technology changes and the United States migrates to the next generation of Internet-based and digital communication technologies.”

Such legislation would no doubt impact litigation such as the lawsuit filed against Arizona State University (ASU) regarding a pilot program’s use of Amazon’s Kindle DX electronic reading device as a means of distributing electronic textbooks. Several institutions of higher education are deploying the Kindle DX as part of a pilot project to assess the role of electronic textbooks and reading devices in the classroom. The lawsuit, filed by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB), alleges violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 because the Kindle DX cannot be used by blind students.

Although the Kindle DX features text-to-speech technology that can read textbooks aloud to blind students, the menus of the device are not accessible to the blind, making it impossible for a blind user to purchase books from Amazon’s Kindle store, select a book to read, activate the text-to-speech feature, and use the advanced reading functions available on the Kindle DX.

In addition to their ASU lawsuit, NFB and ACB also filed complaints with the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, asking for investigations of the following five institutions: Case Western Reserve University, the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, Pace University, Princeton University and Reed College.

“Given the highly-advanced technology involved, there is no good reason that Amazon’s Kindle DX device should be inaccessible to blind students. Amazon could have used the same text-to-speech technology that reads e-books on the device aloud to make its menus accessible to the blind, but it chose not to do so. Worse yet, six American higher education institutions that are subject to federal laws requiring that they not discriminate against students with disabilities plan to deploy this device, even though they know that it cannot be used by blind students,” said NFB President Dr. Marc Maurer. He also said he hoped the matter could be resolved “in a manner that allows this exciting new reading technology to be made available to blind and sighted students alike.”

The objectives of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act include:

  • requiring mobile and other Internet-based telecommunications devices have accessible user interfaces, and offer people with disabilities use of a full range of text messaging and other popular services that are currently largely inaccessible;
  • providing people who are deaf-blind with vital but costly technologies they need to communicate electronically; and
  • ensuring video programming offered via the Internet will be described, and call for all devices that receive and playback video programming to employ accessible user interfaces and allow ready access to description.

The Act, co-sponsored by U.S. Representatives Barbara Lee (Calif) and Linda T. Sanchez (Calif), was re-introduced on June 26, 2009.