Kerry to chair hearing on improving Web access for deaf, blind

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) will chair a hearing next week on legislation that would require technology companies, phone manufacturers and Web vendors to adapt their products for deaf or blind customers.

The scheduled discussion for May 26 on the Senate Commerce subcommittee that chiefly handles Web issues will center on the Equal Access to 21st Century Communications Act, which Kerry co-sponsored along with Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) 

The bill — pitched as a technological addendum to the Americans With Disabilities Act — is the two Democrats' attempt to address accessibility problems that have long made it difficult for disabled persons to use new media and technology tools.

The first draft of the legislation, which Pryor introduced earlier this year, would mandate that all smartphones — including the iPhone and BlackBerry — be compatible with most hearing aids.

The bill would also require DVRs and mp3 players to support closed captioning, as most TVs already do, and would authorize new money for a fund to expand broadband service to low-income, disabled persons.

“Technology and the Internet have broken down barriers, and no one should be or has to be excluded from modern communications and the new economy because of a disability,” Kerry said on Wednesday. “It’s been 20 years since the Americans With Disabilities Act knocked down barriers to employment and government services — and now it’s time to do the same thing [with regard to] blocking people with disabilities from getting online.”

Lawmakers' focus on disability and the digital divide arrives weeks after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a report that found only 42 percent of those with disabilities have access to high-speed Internet service.

As the FCC prepared to discuss that figure at a workshop earlier in the month, Joel Gurin, chief of the FCC's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, said the number was "not acceptable" and promised to implement an "ambitious accessibility agenda to ensure that people with disabilities are not left behind."