Leading US accessibility advocate speaks at Sydney conference

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Thursday, 15 August 2013 16:36pm

Karen Peltz Strauss, one of the principle architects of accessibility legislation in the US, spoke today at the M-Enabling Conference about the decades-long efforts to make telecommunications, television and, more recently, the internet accessible for people with disabilities.

Peltz Strauss, who is currently Deputy Bureau Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has been involved in this field for 30 years. In her presentation, she explained that legislation always struggles to keep up with technology. For example, an amendment to the Telecommunications for the Disabled Act in 1988 ensured that all telephones would be accessible to people with disabilities – with the exception of wireless phones. Responsibility for these was handed to the FCC, and it took another 10 years for legislation covering mobile phones to be sorted out. Similarly, the Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 made it compulsory for televisions with screens 13 inches or larger to receive and display captions. This covered most TVs on the market at the time. No-one envisaged that people would one day be watching TV on much smaller screens.

“Historically, new technologies have created problems for people with disabilities,” said Peltz Strauss, “and the Government has stepped in when the market has not addressed these needs.” She stressed, though, that including accessibility features was good for industry as well as consumers. “When you incorporate accessibility, it encourages innovation.” She also noted the importance of incorporating accessibility at the design stage, to save having to spend large amounts of money retrofitting it.

The culmination of legislative efforts in the US was the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA). This comprehensive legislation will ensure that internet-enabled products and services are made accessible, reinstates audio description quotas for television, and makes it mandatory for TV programs broadcast with captions to have captions when distributed over the internet.

Peltz Strauss’s appearance at the M-Enabling Conference is timely, given the current push to improve accessibility in Australia, particularly on video on demand services which are becoming increasingly popular. Media Access Australia yesterday released a report, Captioning on Video on Demand Services: It’s Time for Australia to Catch Up, which highlights the fact that the only catch up TV services which currently have captions are those of the ABC and SBS, while iTunes is the only video on demand service to have captions on some of its content. Meanwhile, the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), which organised the M-Enabling Conference in association with Telstra, has started a campaign for an Australian version of the CVAA.

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