Federal regulators are issuing sweeping new rules to allow people with disabilities to take advantage of modern mobile and television technology.
The new regulations stem from a 2010 law passed by Congress that updates communications laws to bring more services to the deaf and blind.
The new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations are intended to implement the law so people with bad vision or hearing can take full advantage of communications tools like smart phones, tablets and television.
Under the new rule, phones will have to be able to play text as speech and connect with screen reader devices used by those who are blind or have low vision.
That rule goes into effect October 8.
Another rule published this week requires that TV emergency alert information is accessible to the blind.
Currently, televised emergency alerts have to be preceded by a specific tone to make them recognizable to people who have difficulty seeing. The alerts themselves, however, scroll across the bottom of the screen as text without an audible accompaniment.
As a result, blind people might know there was an emergency, but not what it was.
“You either stick your hand out the window, turn on the radio or curl up in the fetal position just to be preventative,” joked Eric Bridges, the director of advocacy and governmental affairs with the American Council of the Blind.
“But in all seriousness, this is an area of great importance to everyone,” he added. “Being able to, within the next couple of years, have that same level of access to that information as it's becoming available to the general public is a big deal.”
Broadcasters have two years to comply with the rule.
In a statement announcing the release of the emergency information rule, Acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn said: “Ensuring that the video equipment used by those who are blind and visually impaired is fully capable of transporting timely and important messages is critical, and I’m also extremely pleased that we have completed another significant step in our video description rulemakings.”
This month, the agency issued an order requiring that wireless carriers “bounce back” texts sent to 911 if the emergency service is not accessible by text in the user’s area.
In December, the commission proposed requiring all wireless carriers to allow deaf and hard-of-hearing users to send text messages to 911 in areas where operators can receive the texts. The four largest mobile carriers have already voluntarily committed to allowing the service by May 15, 2014.
The telecoms industry says they have been out in front of the commission's rules.
The regulations are "really a codification of what industry was already doing on a lot of these issues, so it wasn't a huge surprise," said Danielle Coffey, vice president of government affairs with the Telecommunications Industry Association. “In fact, industry in a lot of ways got out ahead of both codification but then also a lot of the implementation.”
She added that the association was concerned about the possibility that new rules could hurt “nascent services.”
“We want to make sure that anything that's implemented allows for innovation,” Coffey said.
The FCC still has to issue final regulations making television interface menus accessible to blind and visually impaired people. The agency is circulating that proposal and hopes to release it soon in order to get the final regulation issued this year. That will cap the commission's rule-making duties under the law.
Rules issued in past months have required local TV stations in top markets to provide audio description of video elements. The quick descriptions of on-screen elements would be inserted into primetime or children's programming to help viewers with limited vision understand what's happening onscreen.
Another previous rule required that TV shows with closed captioning also have captions when shown on the Internet, and requires that devices such as tablets be able to display closed captioning.
A 2009 FCC study found that just 42 percent of Americans with disabilities have broadband at home, compared with 65 percent of Americans nationally, a discrepancy that the commission attributes to physical barriers that people with disabilities face in accessing the Internet and modern communications.
“It's our sort of attempt at getting equal access in the digital age,” said Bridges of the law's implementation. “It could be outstanding.”