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Lifted By the Cloud

by: Elizabeth Lyle, Special Counsel for Innovation, Wireless Telecommunications Bureau

November 3, 2010 - 12:21 PM

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President Obama has repeatedly made clear his commitment to equal opportunity and full inclusion for people with disabilities in all aspects of life, including access to technology. He most recently made this point when he signed into law the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, which provides access to advanced technologies for people with disabilities.

Chairman Genachowski has embraced this commitment wholeheartedly. In addition to leading the charge on implementing the recently passed legislation, in July he established of the Accessibility and Innovation Initiative, as recommended in the FCC's National Broadband Plan. The A&I Initiative promotes collaborative problem solving and uses the tools of public and private sector innovation to address accessibility barriers.

As part of this initiative, on October 21 the FCC partnered with the Coleman Institute for Cognitive Disabilities at the University of Colorado and Raising the Floor, an international coalition of individuals and organizations who promote internet accessibility for people with disabilities, to launch "Lifted by the Cloud: Visions of Cloud-Enhanced Accessibility" on GSA's new challenge.gov platform. The challenge solicits short multimedia presentations from the public on their visions of how cloud computing can create new opportunities for people with disabilities. Find out more information about this challenge, which will run until May 1, 2011.

To understand what an opportunity cloud computing can be for people with disabilities, you first have to understand the barriers that people with disabilities currently face to communications technology. The National Broadband Plan found that only 42 percent of people with disabilities use broadband at home, compared to 65 percent nationwide. A remarkable 39% of all non-adopters have a disability.

There are many reasons for this disparity. Among them is the fact that devices, services, software, and content are often not accessible to people with disabilities. Furthermore, assistive technologies used by people with disabilities - such as Braille displays, augmentative and alternative communication devices, and screen readers -- are often very expensive, not interoperable with the latest technologies, and are difficult to find and repair.

So how can cloud computing help? Cloud computing and other platforms can allow people to access the assistive technologies they need anytime, anywhere, and on any device.

Imagine the cloud knowing and storing your personal preferences (in a secure way) so that any material on the web that you wanted to access would be accessible to you. If you are blind, you could pull down an audio version of any document on the web; and if you are deaf, any video you would access would be captioned. For others, information could be simplified, highlighted, or translated into other languages, including sign language. The cloud could allow consumers to choose from an ever expanding choice of third-party open source and commercial software applications that can provide access in new and innovative ways. In short, the cloud will allow innovation and competition to address the access needs of people with disabilities and ensure that they share fully in the benefits of the broadband age.

To make this vision a reality, industry, developers, innovators, technologists, and researchers must understand the needs of people with disabilities. Government can help by facilitating collaborations and participating in interdisciplinary conferences and workshops, such as those sponsored last month by the Coleman Institute for Cognitive Disabilities and Silicon Flatirons at the University of Colorado and sponsored in September by the Interagency Committee on Disability Research, overseen by the Department of Education.

We also need to make cloud computing and its implications for people with disabilities understandable to a broader range of policymakers and the public. The challenge that the FCC, the Coleman Institute, and Raising the Floor just launched is an effort to tap into the imagination and ingenuity of students, filmmakers, developers, and others to help make manifest the benefits of the cloud for people with disabilities and to chart a path for moving forward.

We need your help to ensure that all Americans, including people with disabilities, have full access to technology and are truly lifted by the cloud. We urge anyone who might be interested in participating in this challenge or encouraging others to participate to go to challenge.gov or contact us directly.

Updated: February 2, 2012 - 12:50 PM
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