From Julia Child to mobile devices: How one group cooks up accessible media technology

The National Center for Accessible Media helps develop tools, standards and policies so people with disabilities can access new technology and content

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A long history of developing accessible technologies

NCAM is “dedicated to addressing barriers to media and emerging technologies for people with disabilities in their homes, schools, workplaces, and communities”. To that end it conducts research and development into accessible media technologies, consults with technology and media companies to help them integrate accessibility into their products, and participates in standards setting and policy development. It’s part of WGBH, a public television and radio broadcaster in Boston, with a long history in developing technologies to make media accessible, starting with captioning in 1972. 

NCAM_Julia_Child-290x218.jpgWGBH/NCAM
Bon appétit!

The first TV show to display captions was Julia Child’s The French Chef (a WGBH production), which first displayed open captions on February 11, 1972. At the time, open captioning, or displaying captions on the screen for all to see, was “the only way you could caption stuff,” said Goldberg, who got his start working in WGBH’s Caption Center in the mid-1980s.

Closed captioning (CC) was developed not long after, for which the FCC set aside line 21 of NTSC video signals in 1976. In the 1990 WGBH introduced Descriptive Video Service (DVS) for visually impaired people. Seeing the need for a dedicated research and development group, NCAM was formed in 1993 and has since helped to develop other accessible technologies such as Rear Window Captioning (RWC) and Motion Picture Access (MoPix).

NCAM works directly with the disabled community to find out what their concerns are. It has formed strategic partnerships with virtually every major hardware company, such as Apple, Microsoft, Google, IBM, and HP (except for, interestingly, Amazon) to advise them on accessibility. “We find out ways to work with companies that want to make their products more accessible,” said Goldberg.

NCAM_Rear_Window_Captioning-290x218.jpgITworld/Phil Johnson
LED displays for Rear Window Captioning in the NCAM lab

They also receive grants to research accessibility issues and provide recommendations for solutions. For example, they’ve received funds to study the issues of providing access to emergency alerts, personal health records and communications on public transit systems.

NCAM staffers are also active participants in the development of standards and policies for accessible technology and media, such as the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and HTML5. “We work to build accessible provisions into those evolving standards,” said Goldberg. Geoff Freed, NCAM’s Director of Technology Products and Web Media Standards, says that his role is to “keep up with what they’re doing, chime in when necessary and make sure that they keep accessibility in mind when they’re developing things and to complain when I think they’re doing things that are bad for accessibility.”

At its core, though, NCAM is an R&D shop and its people are known as experts on making media and technology accessible. “We brainstorm, we prototype, we try and rally other developers and the community to pick up technologies and run with things and create things,” says Brad Botkin, NCAM’s Director of Technology. “We’re known to be the problem solvers around accessibility,” he said.

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