Making Technology Accessible – By Law

President Barack Obama has signed into law the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010. The signing, which Obama completed in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on Friday, October 8, is a move that disability rights crusaders in the Gallaudet community have awaited for years.

The part of the measure most celebrated in the deaf community will require that Web versions of television programs with closed captions also appear with captions online. The Federal Communications Commission has required that TV programming come with closed captions since 1996, but requirements for Web content have not kept up with this level of accessibility. Other provisions of the bill include making voice software for “smartphones” more accessible to people who are blind or low vision.

The University and the Gallaudet University Alumni Association joined 122 national organizations and 191 community-based organizations in the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology to push for the bill.

“The passage of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 is a triumphant moment for the Gallaudet community, people with disabilities, and society as a whole,” said Gallaudet President T. Alan Hurwitz. “This could not have come about without the hard work of several of our Board of Trustees members, alumni, faculty, and friends of the University. ” Dr. Hurwitz added that this is just one part of a continuing movement. “Gallaudet plans to continue our support and leadership toward an era where technology empowers everyone,” Hurwitz said.

“What a tremendous victory and boon this will be in terms of disability rights for millions of Americans,” said Board of Trustees Chair Benjamin Soukup, who is founder and CEO of the Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Community Services for the Deaf, Inc. (CSD).

Cheryl Heppner, a Board of Trustees member and executive director of the Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons, echoed Soukup’s sentiments by calling the signing a “thrilling victory.” She added, “At last, advancing technology will become more accessible for individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind, as well as those who are blind or visually impaired.”

Soukup said that he and CSD are “extremely pleased that we have been a part of this exciting process, and that by working together, along with so many other like-minded organizations and individuals, we have been able to successfully convince officials, lawmakers, and others about the need for such accessible services, programs, and laws. We look forward to continuing such efforts in the future so that together we can build a better and brighter America for all.”

Judy Harkins, professor of communications and founding director of Gallaudet’s Technology Access Program, also noted the role of the bill’s supporters. “We can all be grateful to the diverse group of advocates who used the power of a coalition directed specifically to technology access to achieve this remarkable legislative accomplishment,” said Dr. Harkins.

The Gallaudet community was well represented at the signing. Both trustees and Harkins were invited to visit 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the occasion, along with trustee and World Deaf Cinema Festival Honorary Chair Marlee Matlin, an acclaimed actress who has shared her messages about accessible communications both on the Gallaudet campus and the international stage. Also in the audience were Sigrid Cerf, wife of former trustee and Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf, and business professor Dr. Khadijat Rashid, a 2010-2011 White House Fellow.

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