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The FCC’s Accessibility and Innovation Initiative: Background and Recent Work

by: Jamal Mazrui, Deputy Director, Accessibility and Innovation Initiative

February 25, 2013 - 01:57 PM

Chairman Genachowski launched the Accessibility and Innovation (A&I) Initiative in July 2010, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Risks of Emerging Technology

As we all know, technology is evolving at an amazing pace, changing what we do, and how we do it, in almost every sphere of life.  Mostly, this means exciting progress, since new tasks can be done that were not possible before, or traditional tasks can be done with less time and cost.

Unfortunately, however, history has shown that access to new technology often lags behind for people with disabilities.  Those of us with a disability are not deliberately excluded from the benefits of new technology.  Rather, accessibility is generally not on the radar screen when inventors are racing to create new products ahead of their competitors.

An ironic result of this dynamic is that people with disabilities can be more isolated from their peers if technological advancements do not consider their needs.  For example, I personally experienced an inadvertent, major setback from technological change in the 1990s when office computers quickly switched from the text-based interface of DOS to the graphical user interface of Windows, for which there were no viable screen readers at the time.

Potential for Equalizing Opportunities

A different result is possible because most contemporary technologies have software at their core.  Software is not fixed and inflexible, but malleable and adaptable.  It can be made to do almost anything that the human mind can conceive.  That includes being responsive to particular needs and abilities, supporting alternative means of input or output, thereby increasing their usability for everyone.

Thus, technology can be a game changer for people with disabilities by leveling the playing field in an unprecedented manner.  This is especially true in an era that increasingly features mobile devices, broadband connections, and cloud computing.  Mobile devices can bring functionality with us wherever we go.  Broadband connections allow almost instantaneous interaction with computer servers and data repositories at distant locations -- cloud computing on demand.

For example, a blind person can now readily identify paper currency using a mobile app and camera.  A deaf person can communicate directly through sign language via broadband-enabled video.  Someone with a speech disability can use a mobile app and speech synthesizer rather than a bulky, expensive device that only works for that purpose.  A person with an intellectual disability can set reminders on a mobile phone.  Someone with a learning disability can read a book online with software that highlights and voices each word.

Addressing the Accessibility Gap

Over the years, the United States Congress has determined that various laws are needed to help ensure that physical and virtual environments are built with accessibility in mind.  The FCC has regulatory responsibilities in implementing some of these laws.  Yet regulation -- although needed -- has trouble keeping pace with technological change because by the time that the public has been properly consulted, factors analyzed, and rules written, new technology has often emerged that is more relevant than what the regulations address.

The A&I Initiative is a non-regulatory approach for helping to close the accessibility gap of new technologies, using techniques of open government.  A principle of open government is that progress in society is better achieved by involving citizens, as well as government workers, in identifying problems, prioritizing issues, and finding solutions.  The A&I Initiative is open government applied to accessibility.  We use techniques such as public challenges to stimulate progress.  We promote collaborative problem-solving among industry, consumer, and government sectors so that people with disabilities can reap the full benefit of broadband communication technologies.

Highlighting 2012 A&I Activities

In 2012, the A&I Initiative focused efforts in three main areas:  the Chairman's AAA challenge, the Developing with Accessibility event, and the Accessibility Clearinghouse web site.

Chairman’s AAA

Last summer, we solicited nominations for the Chairman's Awards for Advancement in Accessibility (Chairman’s AAA), receiving over 40 nominations.  A cross-agency team of staff met several times to evaluate the nominations, eventually resulting in the selections that we honored on December 19.  Besides the awards ceremony with the Chairman, the FCC's Technology Experience Center played a key part in the event, enabling visitors to get hands-on demonstrations of some of the nominations received. 

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Photo: Winners of the Chairman's Awards for Advancement in Accessibility 

Developing with Accessibility "Developing with Accessibility" or “DevAcc” for short, was a unique, two-day event in September.  Rather than being a conference 

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about policy, DevAcc delivered high quality, practical training on how to develop mobile apps and broadband-enabled web sites according to accessibility guidelines of various platforms.  As far as we know, it is the first time the federal government has concentrated such effort in a free event designed for technology developers.  The event also offered collaborative coding projects and professional networking opportunities. 

 
Accessibility Clearinghouse

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The Accessibility Clearinghouse is the only Congressionally-mandated clearinghouse of information 
about accessible technology solutions.  It was mandated as part of the Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) and first launched on the one year anniversary of that law in October 2011.  The Clearinghouse started with data sets related to accessibility features of mobile phones, free, assistive apps, and factsheets on technology access.  In its second year of development, we have made significant enhancements, including the ability to download information as a spreadsheet, adding data regarding technology access conferences, and doubling the collection of assistive apps.  We also strengthened the developer interface so that programmers can use low-level web services of the Clearinghouse to create “mashups” with other data sources, tailoring value to particular disability groups or mobile platforms.

We thank representatives from industry, consumer, and government organizations for their interest and participation in activities of the FCC’s Accessibility and Innovation Initiative.  We hope for another exciting and productive year in 2013!

 
Updated: February 25, 2013 - 04:33 PM
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