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FCC extends tech program for deaf-blind

FCC extends tech program for deaf-blind
© Getty Images

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday voted to extend a program that offers deaf-blind people specialized equipment to help them use smartphones, laptops and related devices. 

The commission extended, for a year, the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution program, known as iCanConnect, which hands out telecommunications equipment to low-income people who are both deaf and blind. The program also offers training on how to use the technology. 

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The $10 million per year pilot program was started in 2012. The commission voted to extend the program past its July expiration date and also proposed a permanent extension.

A witness at the meeting, Eddie Martinez, showed off some of the technology, sending an email to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler using a Braille display device paired with a smartphone. Similar technology ranges anywhere from $1,300 to $6,000 and is usually customized for a specific person. 

As smartphones and other technology become ubiquitous, studies cited by the FCC have found the rate of connection for people with disabilities has not kept pace with the general population. 

"Tasks that are seemingly simple for many of us, like sending emails or chatting on the phone ... can be difficult or even impossible for deaf-blind individuals if they don't have access to adaptive equipment," said Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. 

Unlike some of the more divisive measures before the commission this year, the order was unanimously approved on Thursday.

The commission also voted to approve an order that would take steps to make emergency information available to blind or visually impaired people when watching videos on so-called second screens — tablets, smartphones and laptops. It would expand on a 2013 rule that expanded emergency alerts on television for people with disabilities.

GOP Commissioner Ajit Pai noted the rule does not cover video over the Internet but only video offered through cable or satellite service. 

Republican commissioners objected in part to the legality of another proposal that would require manufacturers to design set-top boxes with a simple switch that would allow blind people to hear emergency audio.