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Building Online Ramps to Equal Access

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By Congressman Edward J. Markey, Mike Festa and Steven M. Rothstein

If you're an individual who's blind, deaf or both, navigating an intersection can be a challenge - but navigating the Internet can sometimes be even more difficult. That's because laws to ensure equal treatment for Americans with disabilities have focused primarily on things like wheelchair access, rather than Web access. That is about to change.

Last week, Congress passed the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act and sent it to President Obama for his signature. This comprehensive new legislation will update U.S. communications law to ensure that people with disabilities can fully participate in--and contribute to--the virtual, texting, Skyping, messaging, digital world we live in today. It will help close the equity gap in access to the Internet, computers, smartphones and television technologies for individuals with disabilities, opening up new opportunities and unlocking the talents of millions of our fellow Americans.

The new law will require smartphones to include user interfaces with audible commands. It will enable Americans who are blind or visually impaired to finally enjoy the educational, entertainment and cultural aspects of TV by requiring broadcasters and cable companies to include audible descriptions of programs at natural pauses in the onscreen dialogue and make program guides and selection menus accessible. The legislation will also provide better access to emergency alerts, such as hurricane or tornado warnings.

For Americans who are deaf, the new law mandates that closed-captioned television programs also be available with closed captions online, an important requirement as more video migrates to the Web. It requires remote controls to have an easy-access "closed caption" button or a comparable feature for broadcast and pay TV. The law also ensures that telecom equipment used to make calls over the Internet is compatible with hearing aids.

The existence of disability-accessible technologies is the first step. Affordability is another. The law moves toward greater economic access to technology by directing $10 million annually to Americans who are both deaf and blind so they can purchase accessible Internet access and telecom services and equipment.

When they can connect virtually, individuals who are blind and deaf will have a better chance to find employment and advance in the workplace. Full access to computers and cell phones--and the funds to purchase equipment and software-- will put many more jobs within reach. The lack of meaningful employment leads to social isolation and depression--particularly for individuals who acquire blindness later in life. This legislation is good for the continuing health of our entire society.

Massachusetts has a long and proud history of providing quality services for people with disabilities. Both Perkins School for the Blind and the Carroll Center for the Blind are leaders in their respective areas. Individuals like Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, lived and were educated in the Commonwealth. Today, our state continues to lead the way across the country and around the world on this vital issue.

On July 26th, we marked the 20th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the "Bill of Rights" for people with disabilities. Twenty years ago, the ADA mandated physical ramps into buildings. Today, individuals with disabilities need online ramps to the Internet so they can get to the Web from wherever they happen to be. Annie Sullivan was an incredibly dedicated and determined teacher. Now, technology needs to be the teacher, the constant companion, so that Americans with disabilities can compete and succeed in the 21st century economy.

With the enactment of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility bill, individuals with vision and hearing impairments will have the opportunity to participate more fully in society and use their potential to make the whole world a better place - for all of us.

Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-Malden) represents the 7th MA Congressional District and is the author of the 21st Century Communications and Video Act.

Mike Festa is President of the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton.

Steven M. Rothstein is President of Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown.