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Help Us Launch the Accessibility and Innovation Forum

May 17th, 2010 by Karen Peltz Strauss

To address the barriers that people with disabilities face in accessing technology, the National Broadband Plan (“NBP”) recommends, among other things, that the Commission establish an ongoing Accessibility and Innovation Forum (“A&I Forum” or “Forum”).  At the March 10 event rolling out the NBP’s accessibility recommendations, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau Chief Joel Gurin announced that the Commission would launch the A&I Forum in July.

The Forum will be an ongoing collaborative problem-solving effort with diverse stakeholders to promote innovative solutions to broadband and other communications technology barriers.  The Forum will allow the Commission to use new tools and tap into new sources of ideas and innovation to address accessibility problems, using ongoing online efforts, workshops, field events, and facilitated dialogues.

In July, we plan to (1) launch a clearinghouse; (2) announce guidelines for the Chairman’s Award for Accessibility and Innovation; (3) expand blog coverage of ongoing accessibility efforts in the public and private sector; and (4) announce future workshops and field events.  Over the next 12-18 months, we will expand these efforts and add new initiatives.

We will be seeking input on each of these aspects of the new A&I Forum in a series of blog posts over the next two weeks.  This post seeks input on an online clearinghouse. 

Online Clearinghouse

One problem that consumers with disabilities face is that they are unable to find accessible communications technologies and assistive technologies, even if they currently exist.  In addition, consumers often do not have the training and support they need to use these products.  We would like to create an online space where consumers could find links to accessible products and product information that have been recommended by other consumers and/or provided by companies and vendors themselves.

We would like your thoughts on the best way for us to structure this on-line space.  What guidelines should we have for inclusion of accessible products and information?  Should we design the space so consumers can comment on the products and support information? What categories of products and services should we include? How should we ensure that the information in our clearinghouse stays current? 

We welcome any suggestions or models that you may recommend. You can respond directly to this post, file a comment in docket CG10-100, or e-mail comments and suggestions to Elizabeth.Lyle@fcc.gov AND Pam.Gregory@fcc.gov.  We would appreciate feedback as soon as possible but ask that you file any comments no later than Thursday, June 10. 

You can also sign up to receive periodic e-mails about the Forum’s activities and other Commission accessibility issues by sending an e-mail to AccessInfo@fcc.gov.  We look forward to hearing from you!

23 Responses to “Help Us Launch the Accessibility and Innovation Forum”

  1. Rebecca Ladew says:

    It would be wonderful to keep the speech disabled community informed of what innovative products are available to improve their communication skills when communicating publicly whether at work or in the own homes. Many people with speech disabilities are unaware that such products -- i.e. speech generating devices -- can enhance their communcation skills outside their environment.

    Creating a clearinghouse, especially one for products that are desined for people with speech disabilities in mind, could be one way to reach out to this community.

    I think the clearinghouse should be listed by category of disabilities and the products that are available for each disability

  2. Dana Mulvany says:

    There needs to be recognition that many products are only partially accessible, though there's still value in providing information about how those products are accessible. For example, many wireless phones are only partially accessible (VoIP or WiFi phones would presumably be covered by this clearinghouse, and because wireless phones frequently use WiFI, such phones should be covered in this clearinghouse as well). The ring tones and vibration alerts from many phones are ineffective at alerting many hard of hearing people to the rings from the phones, even if the phones are rated Hearing Aid Compatible. (Alerts to messages are also frequently inaccessible to hard of hearing people.) There thus needs to be an analysis of the different features of a product and whether or not they're accessible and/or support the use of third-party applications that are important to different disability groups. I think accessibility is going to need to be evaluated at a highly specified level, feature by feature, and it's also going to be imperative for consumers to be able to point out ways in which current products fall short (or need to be improved).

    Example of an important third-party application: very few wireless phones support Mobile CapTel, which is a very important relay service for oral people with severe to profound hearing loss (from Sprint or Hamilton Relay). (Mobile CapTel allows the user to use ONE phone to hear the other party and view the relayed text at the same time. A few more phones support Web CapTel, but another phone is needed to provide the audio.) It'll be valuable to get input from experts about what third-party applications are particularly important to different disability groups according to the methods of communication access that they use. (People who use sign language can use different third-party applications than than people who use simultaneous audio and video and/or captioning.)

    Other phones won't support the provision of captioned videos, most of which seem to use Flash, but most consumers probably won't realize that. Last February, I saw that YouTube on the iPhone isn't provided with the ability to see captions, even though YouTube PC applications support captions. Sadly, what's accessible on one platform isn't necessarily accessible on another platform.

    Still another issue is whether the company provides accessible information. Apple has some accessibility features (like a stereo-to-mono feature on higher-end iPod Touches and newer iPhones), but it seems to provide little in the way of captioned videos or podcasts, as compared to Google, which seems to try to provide captioning for a great many videos (and perhaps all). Many companies aren't providing any captions on critical videos, which can leave deaf and hard of hearing potential customers uninformed about their products and how to utilize their functions. (For blind or low vision people, pdf files need to be fully readable by screenreaders rather than being image files with non-selectable text.)

    (One need is for companies to provide a public statement about their commitment to accessibility so that customers aren't left guessing about what kind of accessibility they can expect to get in the present and in the future. After all, if there's no federal requirement for accessibility, a consumer who has a disability doesn't know whether accessible information and support could disappear tomorrow.)

    A good thing about a clearinghouse is that it could increase awareness of the overlooked inaccessibility of some of the features of a product which might be even more important to some people because of their disability (like text messaging). Also, what's accessible to one segment may be inaccessible to another. Potentially, videoconferencing software that's been optimized for people who use sign language could fail to address the needs of hard of hearing people who need simultaneous audio and video for optimal speechreading AND hearing at the same time. (Optimized videoconferencing for sign language could sacrifice the quality of the audio, which can be very important to hard of hearing people who need high-fidelity reproduction of sound but who still need to see the face and lips clearly to supplement what they can't hear through speechreading.) Only user feedback may be able to point out shortcomings/continued needs in a product that's been considered to be accessible to the whole group.

  3. Robbin Blankenship says:

    A clearinghouse for information would be helpful, but you need to include information for people who are not deaf but "speech impaired". We have a totally different set of circumstances in getting accurate resource information. And as stated previously, training resources and skills training would be ideal. I get tired of asking questions and people looking at me like I am from "Mars" or yelling at me in response due to them thinking I am deaf!!

  4. Dana Mulvany says:

    There needs to be recognition that few products can be considered to be completely accessible, though there's much value in providing information about how products are accessible in different ways. For example, many wireless phones are only partially accessible as only some features may be accessible, while others are not. (VoIP or WiFi phones would presumably be covered by this clearinghouse, and because wireless phones frequently use WiFI, such phones should be covered in this clearinghouse as well). The ring tones and vibration alerts from many phones are ineffective at alerting many hard of hearing people to the rings from the phones, even if the phones have the highest M and T ratings (for Hearing Aid Compatibility). Alerts to messages are also frequently inaccessible to hard of hearing people due to weak vibrating alerts or alerts that aren't low enough in frequency.

    There thus needs to be an analysis of the different features of a product and whether or not they're accessible and/or support the use of third-party applications that are important to different disability groups. I think accessibility is going to need to be evaluated at a highly specified level, feature by feature, and it's also going to be imperative for consumers to be able to point out ways in which current products fall short (or need to be improved).

    Example of an important third-party application: very few wireless phones support Mobile CapTel, which is a very important relay service for oral people with severe to profound hearing loss (from Sprint or Hamilton Relay). (Mobile CapTel allows the user to use ONE phone to hear the other party and view the relayed text at the same time. A few more phones support Web CapTel, but another phone is needed to provide the audio.) It'll be valuable to get input from experts about what third-party applications are particularly important to different disability groups according to the methods of communication access that they use. (People who use sign language can use different third-party applications than than people who use simultaneous audio and video and/or captioning.)

    Other phones won't support the provision of captioned videos, most of which seem to use Flash, but most consumers probably won't realize that. Last February, I saw that YouTube on the iPhone isn't provided with the ability to see captions, even though YouTube PC applications support captions. Sadly, what's accessible on one platform isn't necessarily accessible on another platform.

    Still another issue is whether the company provides accessible information. Apple has some accessibility features (like a stereo-to-mono feature on higher-end iPod Touches and newer iPhones), but it seems to provide little in the way of captioned videos or podcasts, as compared to Google, which seems to try to provide captioning for a great many videos (and perhaps all). Many companies aren't providing any captions on critical videos, which can leave deaf and hard of hearing potential customers uninformed about their products and how to utilize their functions. (For blind or low vision people, pdf files need to be fully readable by screenreaders rather than being image files with non-selectable text.)

    (One need is for companies to provide a public statement about their commitment to accessibility so that customers aren't left guessing about what kind of accessibility they can expect to get in the present and in the future. After all, if there's no federal requirement for accessibility, a consumer who has a disability doesn't know whether accessible information and support could disappear tomorrow.)

    A good thing about a clearinghouse is that it could increase awareness of the overlooked inaccessibility of some of the features of a product which might be even more important to some people because of their disability (like text messaging). Also, what's accessible to one segment may be inaccessible to another. Potentially, videoconferencing software that's been optimized for people who use sign language could fail to address the needs of hard of hearing people who need simultaneous audio and video for optimal speechreading AND hearing at the same time. (Optimized videoconferencing for sign language could sacrifice the quality of the audio, which can be very important to hard of hearing people who need high-fidelity reproduction of sound but who still need to see the face and lips clearly to supplement what they can't hear through speechreading.) Only user feedback may be able to point out shortcomings/continued needs in a product that's been considered to be accessible to the whole group.

  5. Kathy Brown says:

    Hello Karen, Thanks for doing this and for inviting Verizon to participate. As you know, we see the value in the FCC soliciting input through blog entries and other informal communications that broaden the universe of entities who can participate and applaud the Commission’s commitment to developing an information Clearinghouse on accessible broadband. Companies like Verizon pride themselves in the work we do to offer accessible technologies, yet few consumers seem to know about them. The Clearinghouse will provide a centralized method of providing this information to a wide swath of consumers. Therefore, as you move forward here are some thoughts that the Commission might consider as it draws up its plan for the Clearinghouse.
    1) Provide direct links to the providers’ and manufacturers’ websites
    To ensure consumers receive the most up to date information, the Clearinghouse should contain links to providers' websites for the latest product accessibility information. Because companies like Verizon update their own websites as part of the normal course of business, both the FCC and consumers should be well served by linking the Clearinghouse to provider websites for access to the best and most up to date resources. By doing it in this manner we believe it will be much more efficient than if the companies also had to provide updates to the FCC, who then had to update their own separate website. For instance, Verizon Wireless' site can be found at http://about us.vzw.com/accessibility/index.html .
    2) The clearinghouse should have references or links to the Disability Rights Office fact sheets and other helpful consumer information for Persons with Disabilities http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/dro/
    In many cases, consumers are not fully aware of what Section 255 requirements provide so any kind of fact sheets on the provision itself or Hearing Aid Compatibility requirements would be welcome. To your credit, the DRO already has a "wealth of information" available on your website that is very helpful to consumers, such as the HAC Fact Sheets for Wireline and Wireless phones. We are therefore recommending that you leverage the information you already have and consolidate it in the Clearinghouse. Additionally, as Jim Tobias posted earlier, we think that a portion of the site should encourage users to exchange information, tips and new innovations with one another and for manufacturers and academics to preview innovation in new assistive technology.
    3) The customer complaint form should be updated to be more consumer-friendly
    This will be a helpful exercise not only for the complainants but for the companies who want to provide excellent customer service to the consumers . In many situations, the existing forms don't allow for clear identification about the complaint.
    Finally,

    4) The Commission should use the Clearinghouse as a vehicle to reduce consumer confusion by identifying what consumer's rights are under Section 255 of the Act. As with the previous item, Verizon suggests that the FCC put in layman's terms what Section 255 encompasses. This should include examples of services/products companies must make accessible.
    Again, thank your for the opportunity to offer comments as you prepare to launch the Accessibility and Innovation Forum next month. Verizon plans on being active participants throughout and therefore welcome any feedback the Commission may offer.



  6. Sheri A Farinha says:

    Hello Karen! Thanks for doing this! Wonderful to see the FCC accessible to solicit input this way! Would it be possible to add videos (vlogs) with your blogs so that those who use ASL can also access this important information and provide input by leaving video comments?
    Thank you!

  7. BJ Gallagher says:

    Having a forum is a beginning. Getting the "word out" is another issue. As with STS, "word of mouth" has been the major way that consumers and therapists in MD are finding out about the program. As has already been shared a video component along with closed captioning and text are needed. Making sure the site is also W3C compliant is key. A repository that is consistent for all states, all consumers, and all Communication Assistants would make delivery of STS resources and use similar for all users. The current state of STS is far too inconsistent and frustrating to many of my consumers at this time.

  8. Jennifer Lindner says:

    I also think that cleaning house needs include augmentative communication devices for people with speech disability. I use a augmentative communication device to communicate.

  9. Cheryl Heppner says:

    There are many good ideas here. I think a well-designed clearinghouse would be invaluable but the devil, as always, is in the details. I agree that setting it up, informing the public about it, and maintaining it will require a huge effort but I would love to see it happen.

    I support having a clearinghouse with both information supplied by the manufacturer and information supplied by consumers based on their experiences.

    It is important to think through how to make this most useful and what boundaries to set. Some products that do not have accessibility features have been found to be useful (e.g. consumers have reported that the a certain popular mobile phone has sound quality so good they could use the phone despite the absence of HAC). Other products that do have accessiblity features may require add-ons to be most effective, such as an amplified neckloop. I also think consumers sharing results and experiences with others can be very powerful, but there is always a risk that the information shared could be from an individual with something to gain, not an unbiased source.

    For more than 25 years I have heard from individuals with disabilities who hoped that Consumer Reports or some other entity would finally recognize their needs and run product tests of the expensive technology they had to buy, giving evaluations of the features they needed. Buying a television with closed captioning, for example, has been tough when a consumer cannot always see what the captions will look like until the TV arrives home, or in the case of HDMI cable use, beiing stuck with the quality of the captions generated by the set-top box. I would love to have back the hundreds of hours I spent as the digital TV transition approached and consumers had problems with their televisions and set-top boxes and decoder boxes and cables.

    As the director of a resource center for deaf and hard of hearing individuals, I would love to give the people who come to us for help a resource for accurate, unbiased information about which products have the features they desire, and are most reliable and effective, while continuing to educate that there is rarely one "best" product for everyone. Not only are there very individual preferences on likes and dislikes, but hearing loss is like also a fingerprint. I have known individuals with almost identical audiogram results who had very different preferences for technology that helped them. My mantra is "the best product is the one that works best for you".

  10. Robert Segalman says:

    It would be desirable for the clearing house to include augmentative communication devices for people with speech disabilities.

  11. Jim Tobias says:

    I applaud the Commission’s commitment to developing an information Clearinghouse on accessible broadband ICT. It demonstrates a recognition that even the most accessible technologies do not reach their full market potential unless consumers know about them. It is also a recognition that accessibility is not a single, simple characteristic that can easily be displayed on product packaging – it is multidimensional and highly sensitive to the needs of the user and the context of use.
    Below are some principles that the Commission might consider as it draws up its plan for the Clearinghouse.
    1. As others here have pointed out, the Clearinghouse should not necessarily collect information, but should link to product accessibility information published and maintained by ICT & AT companies. Putting the responsibility on manufacturers and service providers is the best way to guarantee timeliness and relevance. It also provides a formal and essential role for industry accessibility staffers. AT compatibility information should be an essential component. To some extent it may be possible to integrate accessibility information into the FCC certification process, although this is beyond the scope of the current issue.
    2. Encourage users to post their product-specific tips and tricks – they’re the best source of this information, often exceeding what companies know about their own products. Making this function explicit will enrich the dialogue and help build the user base. If feasible, the Commission should participate in the highly popular consumer-techie listservs where such information circulates, and either harvest the content itself or encourage the participants to participate in the Clearinghouse.
    3. Build the Clearinghouse as a solution-oriented, not compliance-oriented, resource. Industry anxiety about regulatory action should be allayed to the greatest extent possible. Use the historical example of ATIS’s IVR Accessibility Forum, which created an open forum for clarifying user needs and exploring industry capabilities, with regulators on the sidelines. Recognize that pulling this off may be a challenge for the Commission.
    4. Be aware of both the “pre-sale” and “post-sale” functions of a Clearinghouse. In the former, a consumer is searching for the most accessible product/service to buy; in the latter, the consumer is looking for help solving an accessibility problem with a product he or she already has. The difference should be factored into both how the content is organized and how the search and wizard functions work.
    5. Cooperate with other accessibility information resources and stakeholders. There are already many information resources on accessible ICT, from both public and private sector sources. The Commission should collaborate with them to develop a shared, professional approach to product and content categorization, feature definition, search strategies, multiple audience development, information architecture, etc.
    6. Focus on outreach and promotion to all audiences as a primary function, not an afterthought. Jim Fruchterman’s suggestions above are excellent. Even if the Clearinghouse is the best, most comprehensive source of information on accessible broadband ICT, it will not automatically be used by the millions of people who can benefit from it. And given that much of the most useful information will come from consumers, its continuing value depends on building a wide base of users. Outreach should be part of an ongoing effort, not a one-time “grand opening”.
    7. Don’t underestimate the quality assurance and maintenance workload. For example, content should be re-visited on a regular basis. If the clearinghouse has 1200 items (beyond those maintained by industry) and each is re-visited once a year, that’s 100 items to review each month. The Clearinghouse may need to play a role in resolving discrepancies between information sources, and will certainly have ongoing communication links with hundreds of companies and other stakeholders. If it is to be successful, the Clearinghouse will have to establish and adhere to a scrupulous set of policies and procedures.

  12. DeafBowtie says:

    That is wonderful. Would like to add one additional method - to allow people leave comments via VRS link in this way, the VRS agent can type the message online for them. Not many can write email messages!

  13. Salimah says:

    Regarding the Clearinghouse, it would be helpful to include a listing of Tech Centers and/or vendors that allow the user to try the equipment and/or software out before they purchase it, as well as a listing of resources for training and technical assistance.

  14. Salimah says:

    Regarding the Clearinghouse, it would be helpful to include a listing of Tech Centers and/or vendors that allow the user to try the equipment and/or software out before they purchase it, as well as a listing of resources for training and technical assistance.

  15. CR says:

    Does this have to be related to broadband technologies?

    I am deaf so I will address this part of it.

    Obviously your site can be broken down into different catagories. Deaf who use sign language. Deaf who cant use sign language. Deaf who can speak and use sign language, Deaf who can speak but dont use sign language, etc..... One size does not fit all and an affective website will need to recognize that. For example VRS works great for someone who uses ASL but it is useless for someone who doesn't.

  16. Julie M Smith says:

    an online clearinghouse of information should be easily searchable by type of device or appllication or service that someone wants to use (e.g., "cell phones") and it should also be searchable by the name of a company (e.g, Motorola or Fios). Also, if companies don't put good descriptions of their stuff in the clearinghouse online it won't be very useful.

  17. Guest says:

    i like the idea of being able to comment on soemthing that is in the online space. it should be kept up to date by the companies themselves. Sort of like a giant Facebook account with all the companies as the "friends" who contribute information.

  18. Guest says:

    To follow up on CR's comment, there are millions of USA citizens with hearing and communication needs who are not Deaf - people who are hard of hearing, deafened or late-deafened, and deaf "Deaf" is one of the most misunderstood labels still in our society. For example, deafened people are routinely assumed to use sign language, and do not, not because they "cannot" but because none of their employment colleagues, family, nor social networks use sign language. So important to know the differences and respect them. All to say congrats on your planning, and a good step in the right direction, and also would like to see meaningful exchange there for all "categories" of needs.

    For others who wish to advocate and learn more about important situations and hurdles for inclusion of Captioning and CART, see www.ccacaptioning.org and join in.

  19. Sheila Conlon Mentkowski says:

    I would like to commend my colleague, Karen Peltz Strauss for setting up this blog and soliciting comments from the public by various means. This blog has been shared with several groups I am a member of so the word is spreading and I sincerely hope individuals will respond to either this forum or the other avenues identified as message recipients as well. Keep up the good work, Karen!

    I wonder if the FCC Clearinghouse could be set up by category, type of equipment or technology, disability, etc, so that they link to each other in a logical format and is easily searchable?

    Keep up the good work, continue blogging, and we will comment as appropriate. Sheila

  20. Jim Terrifc says:


    I am Deaf from North Little Rock, AR
    A few years ago I went to the internet to learn what was in the news or if there were any emergencies I need to know about. I tried to find captioned videos, but I couldn’t find any. I called for technical support to see if there were any captioned videos on the internet. The guy said there was and gave me directions, but I still was not able to find or access anything with captions. This is now Year 2010. Our country needs to wake up!!!!!! People with normal hearing can always hear the news on the internet, but I don’t hear what they said. That is not equal access. I want to know why they (FCC) don’t take action to make sure everything on the internet is accessible for all disabilities. Thank you for letting me to share my frustrations. I hope that all online videos relating to news and emergencies will include captions.

  21. Elizabeth Spiers says:

    I would like to add that it will be impossible to meet the needs of every single person with a disability. I recently saw a friend’s new phone (a Samsung model). It showed a video of a deaf person signing and also captions in the video. I could see that there were captions but they were so small and provided such poor contrast that I couldn’t read them…but another person with good central visual acuity, like some people with Usher Syndrome, would be able to read the captions.


    Also, I’ve heard from some deaf-blind people I know in the community (deaf or hard of hearing people with low vision) who have difficulty reading some of the captions in movie theaters or some of the new TV sets (as well as some captioned Internet shows). The captions, for some of them, crawl too fast, show too poor a contrast, or the letters are too “thin” to see easily. I think we will have to come up with some creative ways to adjust things like captioning speed and fonts. Also many fully deaf-blind people cannot access captioning on TV yet to my knowledge—there isn’t a way to access TV captions in Braille. There might be a stand alone product that could convert captions to Braille on computers—I would have to find that out.


    Is there a way that we can follow up on this legislation to help the manufacturers to interpret the rulings or ensure that communications technology can be as accessible as possible?

    BTW, for some of us, we will have to decide what’s important to us. For me personally, it would be more important to see Internet captioned movies on the computer than on a pager.

  22. Jim Fruchterman says:

    See my complete comments on the FCC's Accessibility Plans on the fourth blog post in this FCC series.

    Specific comments on the proposed Clearinghouse.

    Disability information clearinghouses have been set up in the past, and have failed to fully meet the need or realize the potential of such a solution. If the FCC is to succeed with a new clearinghouse, it needs to avoid the mistakes of the past.
    • Old Clearinghouses rapidly became out of date, especially after the initial grant expired. The FCC should embrace a more Web 2.0 approach where users, experts and vendors can update the data every day, keeping it relevant and timely. Oversight needs to be with a light hand.
    • Material should be posted under an unencumbered open content license, so that the content can be shared widely, especially in case of the Clearinghouse losing funding as some future date (so that the content can be freely moved to a new home)
    • Promotion: the Clearinghouse won’t matter if no one visits. Consider Google and other search engine advertising (or see if Google will partner on a Google Grant). Actively optimize for search engines so that the people who need to find the information will.
    • The Clearinghouse could also host wizard functionality to help people decide what they need, and provide trial access to key accessibility technologies so that users can actually experience what the AT would do for them.
    • The biggest enemy of a Clearinghouse is irrelevancy. Make it an indispensable tool for people with disabilities, their families, educators, rehab professionals and the assistive and mainstream technology industries.

  23. Mary Brooner says:

    There are many good ideas in the comments about the Clearinghouse. I agree with Jim Tobias that cooperation with other resources already in existence will help all and that the clearing house should be solutions oriented.

    Somehow, the FCC needs to separate the online space for links and information provided by vendors/companies/providers from the online space for users or people trading information - what Jim Tobias calls product specific tips. These need to be separated so it is clear what the manufacturer, provider, AT or App developer says and how the user experiences or uses the product. Also, somehow the distinction between manufacturer or provider and the add on of AT or app should be clear. Especially with apps, there are so many, that the manufacturer or service provider cannot and does not know about them all.

    I also like the idea of linking to training resources, state programs and NGOs that provide skills training. Again, it should be a link to those resources, not an up load that the FCC would maintain.

    The clearinghouse is a very big project for the FCC and may work best if accomplished in steps. In that way, everyone will learn as it grows and improves.

    Mary Brooner
    MB Consulting, LLC

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