PhoneAbout fifty million hearing and vision-impaired people live in the United States, yet few consumer electronics are designed to be readily accessible those individuals. Although some smartphones, most notably Apple’s iPhone, have built-in speech software for the blind, others require costly programs to make the phones user-friendly.

Recently, legislation was introduced in Congress to address this problem. The Senate bill is called “The Equal Access to 21st Century Communications Act” and, along with a companion bill in the House, it would mandate that companies make their products adaptable to the needs of hearing or vision-impaired consumers. With the changes sought by this legislation, such consumers would be able to choose from a wider selection of products and tools, such as video captioning.

Advocates, like Senator Mark Pryor (D-Ark) who introduced the bill, have pushed for enactment because “the Internet is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity to learn, interact, and conduct business.” However, the bill is not without opponents. Industry spokesmen and trade associations have said the bill goes too far. They feel that government regulation is not the appropriate venue to address the technological gap, and that “the marketplace is better off when innovators design technology, not when government officials try to change technology.”

While government involvement in the creation of new technologies is probably unwise, that does not mean that government should have no role when a significant portion of the population is being left behind. There are consumers able and willing to buy these products who can’t use them, because their needs are not being considered at the development stages. Industry leaders have not yet reached the point where they are producing technologies that everyone can use, and it should therefore become the role of government to give a little push.

Complaints from companies that government regulation will stifle innovation don’t speak to the real issue — there simply isn’t enough innovation going on. This bill represents the minimum changes that companies should make to ensure that their products are accessible, and if they choose to innovate beyond that, they are free to do so. But fears about stifling innovation should not stand in the way of access to critical technological resources. Today businesses, schools, and government all rely on myriad new technologies to run effectively, and cutting people off from these tools puts them at a serious disadvantage.

As Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va) said, “we must make sure that the programs and policies we have in place to support Americans with disabilities keep up with the rapidly increasing speed of changing technology. We have a responsibility to make sure that kind of opportunity is available to everyone. Period.”

Joanna Barry

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