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Legislation Would Make Online Video Accessible to the Hearing- and Vision-Impaired

"People don't think about people with disabilities and their needs when new media occurs. It's a complete mystery to me why people don't think about this," says Jenifer Simpson, senior director of government affairs at the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), bemoaning the lack of accessibility in online video. "A lot of time the response is, "Oh, we never thought about that."

Certainly no one in our industry is trying to deliberately exclude the hearing- or vision-impaired, but sometimes it takes government legislation to prompt companies into doing the right thing. For that reason, Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) recently introduced the "Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2009" (H.R. 3101) into the House of Representatives.

Bearing the Burdon
So would the legislation force online broadcasters to spend a fortune on closed captioning and audio descriptions, if passed? Actually, the requirements are mild, says Simpson, although they'd have a big impact.

Online video broadcasters would have to extend closed captioning to video made available over the Internet, so long as that programming would otherwise be covered by the FCC's captioning rules.

That means a TV program that would have closed captioning when shown on television would also need to have captioning online. The bill specifically exempts user-generated content.

"It was captioned when it was on television," says Simpson, "so why isn't it captioned when I go to download it on my fancy new smart device?"

The bill appears to omit original online video content, even when it's made by a major production house or distributor. Sony Pictures has an online division, for example, but its original web programming wouldn't require captioning.

Simpson, for one, hopes that content creators will caption their work, or provide audio descriptions for the visually-impaired, even if legislation doesn't require them to. "Everyone screams about the cost of accessibility, then it's there and everyone can enjoy it," she says, noting that closed captioning is regularly enjoyed by people in health clubs and noisy bars, not just by the hearing-impaired.

The bill covers more than just online video and audio, requiring VOIP phone devices to be hearing aid-compatible, closed captions to be easily accessible from remote controls and online menus, and television shows to offer visual descriptions for the vision-impaired, to name a few of the provisions.

Online Leaders
Not all online broadcasters need to be forced to provide accessibility, of course. Simpson notes that Hulu, for example, has shown a commitment to providing closed captioning. The site even offers a filter that lets viewers easily find captioned programs from its Recently Added or Most Popular pages. Simpson also notes that AOL began offering closed captioned CNN clips years ago.

The bill was introduced into the House of Representatives on June 26, and now it will hopefully pick up additional cosponsors, Simpson says. It recently gained two cosponsors from California. Simpson and members of the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT), an umbrella organization that includes the AAPD, are meeting with members of the House and their staffs, trying to gain support. She expects that a similar bill will soon be introduced into the Senate, and is optimistic about their chances of passing.

"We don't think this is an unreasonable request," says Simpson. While she'd prefer the industry comes up with a standard solution by itself, she notes that the marketplace sometimes needs a little push.

"People can do it voluntarily, or maybe it's going to take legislation," Simpson says.

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