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The Future of Disability in America
Although the proposed legislation cited above will go a long way toward safeguarding access to the telecommunications and information technologies of the future, gaps and uncertainties still exist. For example, it is unclear whether the Television Decoder Circuitry Act’s requirement for “television apparatus” to have captioning decoder capabilities applies to newer types of devices that can receive or display television programming, including cell phones; MP3 players; video recording devices; and standalone video media, such as home theaters. It is critical for this statute to be interpreted broadly or amended, lest deaf and hard-of-hearing consumers be denied access to the vast array of new video programming options available to the general public.
Similarly, although state equipment distribution programs have been very successful in distributing SCPE to hundreds of thousands of persons with disabilities across the United States, most of these programs limit their selections to wireline devices and fail to provide the wireless and Internet-based communication options that are now commonplace in mainstream society. In 2000, Missouri became the first state to make adaptive computer equipment used for access to the Internet and electronic mail available to its residents; others need to follow this example.
In addition, the Lifeline and Link-up programs, two universal service programs that help subsidize the cost of monthly telephone bills and first-time connections for low income subscribers, are available only for traditional telephone services. Many disability advocates believe that these should also be available to support the Internet-based services and equipment needed for communication by people with disabilities. For example, many deaf individuals have replaced their PSTN-based TTYs with video devices that they use to converse over broadband technologies. These individuals want the option of using universal service subsidies to help pay for their broadband service and equipment.
The agenda for communications access does not stop there: a plan for TTY users to migrate to the more modern text-based communications services needs to be developed to ensure that text is as reliable and interoperable as voice in emerging communications networks; firewalls imposed by businesses and government agencies need to be adjusted so that they do not block access by sign language users wishing to make video connections over broadband technologies; new digital products must offer multiple ways of controlling their operations so that soft button or graphic interfaces do not block access by people who cannot see; and accessible real-time solutions for emergency access in an Internet-based environment need to be devised and implemented. These and other accessibility needs must be addressed so that people with disabilities can be equal participants as our nation embarks on its newest technological revolution.