Delivering Broadband Accessibility for People with Disabilities

Posted by Laura Ruby 
Director, Accessibility Policy & Standards for Trustworthy Computing

How can the United States ensure that people with disabilities share fully in the benefits of broadband technologies and services? This was the focus of a conference today in Washington, DC, involving government officials, consumer advocates, industry leaders and academics. Speakers included Federal Communication Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski and Kareem Dale, Special Assistant to the President for Disability Policy. I participated in a roundtable discussion moderated by representatives of two of the conference co-sponsors, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation and the American Association of People with Disabilities.

The conference was timely because next week the FCC will deliver to Congress a National Broadband Plan to extend the benefits of broadband to all Americans. The plan recommends steps to better understand and address the needs of people with disabilities, stimulate innovation in accessibility solutions, and ensure access to the government’s electronic and information technology.

The need for action is well documented. The FCC recently published findings that the online activities of broadband-using people with disabilities are comparatively narrow in scope; that is, they do fewer things online. They face barriers that will also hinder millions of other Americans as the nation’s population ages. Microsoft, which has been working to integrate accessibility into our processes and products for 20 years, commissioned a 2003 study by Forrester Research, which found that 60 percent (101.4 million) of working-age adults are likely or very likely to benefit from the use of accessible technology.

The FCC’s call for biannual reports and further studies of accessibility is important because the resulting data will help shape future product development. We hope the FCC will seek input from industry as to the kinds of data that will help us best meet customers’ needs.  The FCC’s plan to develop an online clearing house of information on accessible technologies will foster greater awareness of the variety of solutions available.

We’re encouraged by the FCC’s recommendation of support for accessible technology innovation. Private investment is not always available to meet the many, sometimes specialized, accessibility needs of Americans. Whether efforts are focused on assistive technology or on accessibility in devices, operating systems or cloud computing, additional incentives and resources will help people with disabilities to pursue education and employment in today’s competitive and connected digital workplace.

We also appreciate the FCC’s support for efforts to make government more accessible, such as by strengthening compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires access to electronic and information technology procured by federal agencies. We pledge to continue working with the government on these efforts and to fully implement Section 508, an international model of successful public/private partnership, which demonstrates the effectiveness of market-driven incentives and industry self-declaration.

Microsoft thanks the FCC for its leadership on this issue and for its thoughtful and inclusive approach. As the Commission updates regulations to fit modern technology, we hope it will consider carefully what industry already has accomplished, target policies narrowly to avoid adversely impacting innovation, pursue technology-neutral solutions, and work closely with industry and other stakeholders to achieve the important goals we all share.

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