For visually impaired users, the iPhone is the only way to go

First biennial report on the accessibility of communications technologies is released, and the iPhone gets high grades

iphone-600x450_0.jpgREUTERS/Yves Herman
The American Federation for the Blind said, in terms of accessible smartphones, there is't much choice beyond the iPhone

Interesting news on the accessibility front this month with the release of the first biennial report to Congress on the Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA). After all, nothing says “interesting” like “biennial report to Congress.” Am I right, people?

The CVAA, which was passed in October, 2010, is an extension of the Communications Act of 1934 and, in a nutshell, is meant to ensure that communications and media services, content, and equipment are accessible to disabled users. It will require that things like smartphones are accessible, as well as video programming on television and the Internet.

Under the CVAA the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau (CGB) of the FCC must report to Congress every two years on how it’s going. This month’s report is the first of those and, while the full implementation of the many facets of the CVAA is still underway (and full compliance of some aspects won’t be mandatory until next year or beyond), the report provides a few interesting nuggets on the current state of accessibility for communications technologies.

These biennial reports (among other things) must provide assessments of the current state of accessibility compliance with the following of sections of the law:

  1. Section 255: Telecommunications equipment and services - Including wired, cordless, and wireless telephones, fax machines, answering machines, voicemail and voice over IP (VoIP).
  2. Section 716: Advanced communications services - Including e-mail, short message service (SMS) text messaging, and instant messaging, as well as video conferencing services.
  3. Section 718: Mobile phone Internet browsers

To assess compliance, the CGB solicited feedback from users, consumer groups, manufacturers and industry groups. Feedback for this round was sparse, again given that compliance with all provisions is not yet mandatory. However, given the feedback received, the CGB came to the following conclusions about initial efforts to comply with the CVAA:

  • Blind or visually impaired users have consistent problems using new telecommunications devices (those covered by section 255), with the big exception of the iPhone. The feedback in the report from the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) said “Apple’s iPhone continues to be the only smart phone providing truly equal access at no extra cost to users with vision loss.”
  • The situation is better for hearing impaired users, with the CGB concluding that telecommunications services and equipment “generally are meeting the hearing aid compatibility needs of people with hearing loss.” However, in the report, the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) said that some mainstream phones have still have issues with speakerphone or Bluetooth features providing good enough sound quality for hearing impaired users.
  • The CGB couldn’t properly assess the accessibility of advanced communications services, due to inadequate feedback. Although, they do say that the industry is currently taking steps to ensure that communications technology and services will soon have a wide range of accessible functionality.
  • The Commission did not assess the accessibility of mobile phone browsers, since they have not yet issued rules for implementing the provisions of the law.

The big take-aways? Well, mainly that the implementation of the CVAA is still in its infancy; we should know much more by the time of the next biennial report in 2014. What we do know now is that, for smartphones, the problems are more significant for visually impaired users and, for them, the only real choice currently is the iPhone. Also, manufacturers and content providers are currently working towards meeting full compliance with the law by the required due dates.

Do you have a visual or hearing impairment? What’s your experience with current technologies? How (in)accessible are they?

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