Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Ramp Up to Accessing 21st Century Communication Technology

By Shannon Ramsay, CFILC's Information and Assistance Advocate

So many of the ways that we communicate vital information are not fully accessible to people with disabilities. The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (from here forward referred to as “the Act”) was signed into law by President Obama on October 8, 2010 to give people with disabilities access to these communications services.  This overview article is the first in a series of posts which will explain the provisions of the Act.

 The act is broken down into two major sections, each of which is made up of several subparts.  In the first major section, the act addresses barriers to communication technology, such as the incompatibility of smart phones with hearing aids and inaccessibility of content on the Internet.  The second major section of the act focuses on increasing access to video programming through closed captioning and audio description.          
Currently, many of us who wear hearing aids experience interference on certain types of phones, such as smart phones, or we are not able to hear the sounds on the phone clearly enough. These incompatibilities cause us to miss critical pieces of information which are necessary for us to communicate effectively. I have experienced situations in which I have needed to take my hearing aids out to hear conversations on my phone.  There are provisions in the first section of the act which address the problem of hearing aid compatibility with certain types of phones.     

Right now a large amount of online information is still not easily within the reach of people with disabilities.  We are denied equal access to information about employment and educational opportunities because far too many websites are still not designed with screen reader access or closed captioning integrated into their design.  Also, many times assistive technology comes into conflict with Internet hardware and software preventing web access. Provisions are stated in the first section of the Act to reduce these barriers and to make it possible for us to check e-mail, shop for music, apply for jobs, follow the latest news, and track the amount of funds we have in our bank accounts as easily as our peers without disabilities.

Frequently, people with disabilities become stranded and lose access to the technology and personal assistance we need during disasters such as floods and earthquakes because emergency information is not presented in an accessible format. The first section of the Act includes provisions to ensure that emergency service providers make information about disasters and disaster relief services accessible through audio description and closed captioning.  In the second section, the Act states that an emergency information advisory committee should be established to come up with the best methods for increasing access to emergency information.

Furthermore, the first section of the Act contains provisions requiring the establishment  of a relay system which will assist deaf individuals to communicate more easily by phone with people who can hear.  The first section also includes requirements for the distribution of communications equipment for people who are deaf-blind. 

 The second major section of the Act mandates that video programming must be made more accessible through the increased availability of closed captioning and audio description.  

 All of the provisions of this act are intended to set new standards so that Americans with disabilities can take advantage of the technology our economy depends on.  This is especially important in today's job market when every worker needs the necessary skills to compete for the jobs of the future. 

 If you would like to get more information about the history of the law and read the entire text of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, click here

What barriers have you encountered to communications services and video programming and how do you think this act will help you overcome them?             

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

AT Helps Keep Senior in her Home

It's time for an AT Network success story.

Sometimes the difference between living on one’s own and requiring skilled nursing care can be as simple as a single assistive device. “Mary” (not her real name) is a senior living in the Santa Barbara area. She lived by herself in the home she and her late husband purchased many years ago. But a spate of recent falls had family members concerned. Worried about her safety, they were urging Mary to move to a care facility. But Mary neither wanted to move out or have anyone move in with her. A friend referred Mary to the Independent Living Resources Center.

ILRC’s Assistive Technology Advocate at first suggested Mary subscribe to an emergency alert service but she could not afford the monthly service fees. So the advocate told Mary about the California Telephone Access Program (CTAP). A free service funded by the California Public Utilities Commission (through a fee added to all telephone bills) CTAP provided Marie with an emergency automatic dial telephone and an alert button on a bracelet she could wear. After a fall, Mary could press the button on her bracelet that would cause her telephone to automatically dial a set of pre-program numbers, including 911.

With the emergency automatic dial phone installed, Mary was able to continue living in her own home and her family had peace of mind knowing she could contact help when she needed it.

What is your AT success story?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

NVDA Project: a Screen Reader by the people for the people

By Luke Hsieh, AT Advocate at the Community Access Center, Riverside

As far as computer screen readers go, JAWS from Freedom Scientific has become something of an absolute standard. Last time I checked, a copy of JAWS standard version costs $895. In case the irony escapes you, $895 is approximately the same amount of a Supplemental Security Income Check for the month.  (Hmmm…I wonder when they are going to make the next shark movie.)

So, when two blind computer programmers did not want to pay that kind of money for computers to talk, they reasoned, rightly, that others probably don't want to pay that kind of money to make the computer talk either. Together they wrote their own screen reader and very generously offered it as open source software. It’s called NonVisual Desktop Access, or NVDA.

I would hate open source software if I worked for Microsoft, but I don't, so I absolutely adore it. Anyone can download, modify, use, copy, or share the software just as long as nobody makes any money on it. So IVONA just downloaded the thing, packaged it with their voice engine and voila! They have an accessibility pack. But wait, didn't I say that nobody is supposed to make money off the screen reader? Well, the screen reader is free, but the voice engine is not, so you get the picture.

The NVDA screen reader comes with its own voice engine, but I could barely understand anything it says. It's like hearing myself in a tape recorder, and I wonder why anyone would model the voice engine after me. So that voice engine had to go. Luckily the two programmers don't have too much qualm about people changing voice engines. So I use IVONA Emma II British English Voice Engine on NVDA, and the result is promising enough for me to want to tell you about it. Now that I have told you about it, it is your turn to download and see or hear for yourself. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

4 Reasons to Like the AT Network's Facebook Page

By Rosemarie Punzalan, CFILC's Communications Specialist

1.  You are already on Facebook.  You often log in to Facebook and refresh your News Feed hundreds of times a day anyway.  If you "Like" the AT Network, then you will receive AT-related news updates.

2.  Give us feedback. The AT Network is always curious to learn what our AT Network members think.  Appreciate a specific blog?  Would you like to see a webinar and/or in-person topic more thoroughly explored?  Let us know on our wall!

3.  Keep up with our AT Blog.  When a new post is added to the AT Blog, it is also added to our AT Network Facebook Page!  That way you won't miss a single post and will stay up-to-date on the latest assistive technology news from around California.

4.  Participate in AT Network webinars.  When a new webinar event is added to the AT Network Calendar of Events page, it is also added to our AT Network Facebook Page!  Attend 60-90 minute webinar trainings, vendor forums and virtual brown bag discussions.