Advances in information and communications technology (ICT), and the telecommunications industry in particular, have truly transformed the day-to-day routines of people with disabilities. In many ways, this technology has served as a superhighway towards increased independence, allowing people who might otherwise need help to order their own groceries, choose and watch movies, text their friends, do their banking and take care of other routine tasks. For this to be achievable, however, the technology must be developed with the needs of people with disabilities in mind.
All businesses in the telecommunication sector – whether they are service providers or manufacture products such as smartphones – should be aware of their obligations regarding web accessibility. If their services and products have built-in barriers that prevent people with disabilities from using them, it has a negative impact on a very large segment of the population.
Approximately 62 million Americans have disabilities, ranging from mobility issues to blindness to learning disabilities, and these can affect the way they use telecommunications. When millions of people are unable to make full use of technologies that haven’t been designed to be accessible, these individuals are marginalized, a phenomenon known as the “digital divide.”
Organizations, in fact, have a legal obligation to ensure that they don’t contribute to this digital divide. If their products and services don’t meet accessibility requirements, these companies are breaking the law, discriminating against people with disabilities, inviting complaints – or worse – and inadvertently sending a message to the market of customers with disabilities that their business doesn’t matter.
What is Web Accessibility?
Web Accessibility refers to the systematic removal of barriers that prevent people with disabilities from participating digitally, and/or the practice of designing products and services to be fully accessible from the start. Web accessibility often enhances usability by people who don’t necessarily have disabilities.
A few examples of web accessibility in telecommunications include:
- Video captioning. A transcript of the audio content of an online or streaming video is displayed as text on the screen, synchronized with the audio. This allows people who can’t hear the audio content to know what’s being said or heard in the video. It also helps people for whom English is a second language, and it enables anyone to watch videos in a noisy environment.
- Live captioning. This is the same as video captioning, but is created as a live event is broadcast or simulcast over the Internet.
- Video description (or “audio description”). Short audio descriptions of the visual scenes in a streaming movie or program are inserted during pauses in dialogue. This enables people who are blind to interpret what is happening in the program.
- Transcript. Text is created of all audio content and important visual information in a video. This enables people with hearing and vision disabilities to access this information. It also helps anyone who doesn’t have the time to watch the video but wishes to quickly browse the text.
- Adequate touch targets on mobile apps. The app used to access online services is designed with touch targets areas that meet certain specifications (a minimum size and a minimum distance apart). This makes easier for people with limited hand dexterity to touch them, and to avoid touching the wrong targets. It also reduces errors and frustration for everyone else with average-sized fingers.
More information and guidance is available from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which develops the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. The technical requirements listed in WCAG 2.0 have become an international standard and are used all over the world.
Learn About Accessibility Laws
If your organization does work in the telecommunications sector, you need to be aware of your legal obligations regarding accessibility. For example:
- The Telecommunications Act, which became law in 1996. Section 255 of this act states that telecommunications products and services must be accessible to people with disabilities if it is “readily achievable” (i.e. not unreasonably costly or difficult). If full accessibility is not possible, then these products and services must be compatible with assistive technology (an example would be ensuring that an image can be interpreted by a screen reader). The Section 255 refresh, released last January, specifically requires compliance with WCAG 2.0.
- The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA). This was passed in 2010 to ensure that older federal telecommunications legislation took into account more modern innovations (i.e. new digital, broadband, and mobile technology). Under the CVAA, for example, “advanced” communications services and products, including video conferencing, text messaging and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), are required to be accessible. Closed-captioned television shows must also be captioned if they are distributed online. Television equipment must be designed with certain features, such as the ability to display closed captions. Companies that manufacture smartphones with built-in web browsers must ensure that they’re usable by people with vision disabilities. It’s expected that the accessibility requirements outlined in the CVAA will expand over time as our reliance on online technology continues to increase.
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA makes it illegal for businesses, non-profit organizations and governments to discriminate against people with disabilities. Failing to provide equal access to goods and services, including telecommunications products and services, is considered a violation of this law.
When Laws Trigger Lawsuits
With the expert guidance and technology available today, it would be difficult to make a case that accessibility is not “readily achievable” or that it poses “undue hardship.” A few years ago, Netflix was forced to add closed-captioning to its streaming videos after it was sued by the National Association of the Deaf (NAD). About 36 million people in the U.S. have a hearing disability; in its lawsuit, the NAD claimed that Netflix had discriminated against them – and violated the ADA – by failing to provide equal access to its videos. Netflix agreed to caption all of its video content by 2014, and paid $755,000 to the NAD for legal fees and other costs.1
In 2012, an organization called Disability Rights Advocates filed a class-action complaint against Redbox Automated Retail in California, claiming that it discriminated against people with vision disabilities with its inaccessible video rental services. In a settlement, Redbox agreed to improve its self-serve video rental kiosks with features such as tactile keypads and speech output. It also agreed to modify its website so that customers using screen readers could browse videos and make selections independently. As part of this settlement, a $1.2-million class damages fund was established to compensate eligible people with disabilities.2
It’s now almost 2018. The laws have only been strengthened in favor of increased web accessibility in the telecommunications industry. Just last month, another video streaming service, Hulu, was at the receiving end of a nationwide class suit launched by the American Council of the Blind for its failure to provide the minimum amount of video description required by the CVAA. Hulu is also accused of failing to remove barriers from its website and mobile apps.3 This lawsuit could end up costing Hulu a lot of money and attracting a lot of attention; unfortunately, it’s not the kind of publicity any company would want to pay for.
Prevent Complaints Before They Happen
If you do business in the telecommunications sector, now is the time to ensure that your products or services are following all relevant anti-discrimination laws – and that, furthermore, customers and potential customers with disabilities are delighted with your offerings. Reach out to an expert consulting firm for an accessibility audit, and find out what else you can do to increase loyalty for your brand.
An Innovative Solution
eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY has developed a comprehensive accessibility solution to help organizations follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and achieve and maintain compliance with standards and regulations. This includes integrating web compliance evaluation services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.
- Netflix and the National Association of the Deaf Reach Historic Agreement to Provide 100% Closed Captions in On-Demand Streaming Content Within Two Years Home, National Association of the Deaf, 2012.
- Redbox and Lighthouse for the Blind: DRA Announces Settlement Agreement, Disability Rights Advocates, 2014.
- Nationwide Class Action Challenges Hulu’s Discrimination against Blind and Visually Impaired Individuals, Cision PR Newswire, 2017.