Voice Your Support for HR 3101: Make Online Video Accessible

While you're contacting your congressperson and encouraging them to support a public health care option, please take a moment to also encourage them to support HR 3101, the "21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2009". This bill was introduced by Massachusetts Rep Ed Markey on June 26 and is currently in committee.

If passed, HR 3101 will bring existing federal laws requiring communications and video programming accessibility up to date. As you all know, the Information Age has expanded well beyond our television sets, and we now get information and media from the Internet using our laptop or desktop computers as well as handheld mobile devices.

Back in the days when we got all our information from TV, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing had the same level of access as the Hearing, thanks to federal laws (passed in the 1990s) that required (a) video program distributors to provide closed captions with their programming, and (b) television manufacturers to produce TVs that were capable of displaying those captions.

Fast forward to 2009: You're watching the latest news from CNN on your laptop while catching up on last night's episode of America's Got Talent on your mobile device. This programming is all captioned on television, but not on the Internet, and captions may not even be supported on your mobile device. If you're a person who doesn't have good hearing and therefore needs closed captions, none of this programming is accessible to you. Your only choice for accessing video is to remain in your living room tethered to your TV set.

Worse yet, if you're blind or visually impaired you don't even have equal access to that TV set. You can generally understand most video content based on the spoken dialog and other sound cues, but most programming includes visual content that is not communicated audibly. The art of making this content accessible is called "audio description" (also "video description" and various other terms). It consists of a separate audio track in which a narrator describes key visual content. Blind users can choose to turn this track on or off. This method of providing access to visual content has been around since 1974 (according to this history of audio description), but U.S. telecommunication laws have not required it, and there is little standardization in today's technology as to how it should be delivered.

HR 3101 does for audio description what the federal laws passed in the 90's did for captions. It directs the FCC to conduct an inquiry into the best methods for delivering audio description and to report their findings to Congress within 18 months of enactment of the law. It also requires programs to be described, and requires that video-enabled devices be capable of delivering the descriptions if they're available.

In short, HR 3101 stands to finally bring U.S. accessibility laws related to communications and video programming into the 21st Century. By doing so it will remove the growing array of technological barriers that prevent individuals with disabilities from fully participating in our video-based information society.

To learn more about HR 3101 or to track its progress, one good resource is Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT). Their website includes a One Page Summary of the Bill as well as a Section-by-Section Summary of the Bill.

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