The UK government set up Ofcom in 2003 to be a ‘super-regulator’ for the nation’s communications industries, merging five former regulatory bodies across the television, radio, telecommunications and wireless communications sectors.
Part of the body’s role includes ensuring equal access to communications technology for disabled people, and in its first five years of operation it has carried out various projects relating to access to television, telecommunications and radio by all users. People with disabilities have been involved for example in work by Ofcom’s Consumer panel, an advisory body representing consumer interests; its broadcasting Content Board, which looks beyond consumer issues to the broader ‘public interest'; and its Advisory Committee on Older and Disabled People.
Now, however, the pace of change in all its areas of activity including the convergence of internet services with television; the rise of digital radio; and the switchover to digital TV have prompted the regulator to give renewed priority to ensuring that all citizens are able to benefit from modern communications services.
This year Ofcom is duly launching a new dedicated workstream focusing on access and inclusion, including usability, across all its areas of work. One of the people working on this is new Consumer Policy Manager Katie Hanson.
Before joining Ofcom Hanson was public policy officer at deafblindness charity Sense, and worked to influence the fledgling Communications Bill to improve its provision for services to people with disabilities such as sign language, subtitling and audio description on TV programmes.
With a neat circularity, the consequent Communications Act 2003 set out the functions and powers of Ofcom, so Hanson is now helping to implement some of the provisions she championed previously.
“A lot of work on services for disabled consumers and usability has already been carried out within Ofcom”, Hanson tells E-Access Bulletin.
The main part of the legislation relating to accessibility of communications equipment in the home is section 10 of the 2003 Act, which establishes Ofcom’s ‘Duty to encourage availability of easily usable apparatus.’
The duty is for the regulator “to take such steps, and to enter into such arrangements, as appear to them calculated to encourage others to secure (a) that domestic electronic communications apparatus is developed which is capable of being used with ease, and without modification, by the widest possible range of individuals (including those with disabilities); and (b) that domestic electronic communications apparatus which is capable of being so used is as widely available as possible for acquisition by those wishing to use it.
The problem Hanson faces, however, is that the duty carries no powers of enforcement “other than persuasion”.
“Ultimately, we don’t make the law, that is up to Parliament, and we don’t have powers at the moment,” she says. “We can’t change the law, so we’ve got to use our imagination.”
One of the ways Ofcom can work is to commission research, as they have recently in one their main areas of accessibility work, captioned telephony for the deaf and hard of hearing.
There is currently a text relay service in the UK, TextDirect, which is expensive to run since it requires the use of a live operator to either type what one or both callers are saying so the conversation can be read in text form by one or both participants.
The service is funded by telecoms providers under the universal service obligation, the same piece of law that stipulates the provision of public payphones in remote areas. However, Hanson says that one of the problems Ofcom faces now is that the universal service obligation does not provide for the use of new systems such as captioned telephony or video phones for sign language services – technologies that could theoretically make telephone use for the deaf much cheaper and easier.
“Technology has to move on, and we need to make sure the service reflects what is available now,” she says. “But the wording does not provide for new technologies.”
As a step towards spurring the telecommunications industry and government into new action in this field, therefore, Ofcom published research into captioned telephony last month. Commissioned from City University, the report looks at possible new captioned telephony technologies; new voice recognition techniques such as multiple speaker recognition; and alternative solutions such as video (see:
Another piece of research has recently been commissioned into the barriers for communications access by people with impaired vision.
Another form of action Ofcom can take in the arena of ‘persuasion’ is to support advertising and awareness campaigns, such as a current campaign it is backing to promote awareness and use of TV audio description services.
Audio description is a digital sound-track describing what is happening during a film or television programme in-between spoken dialogue. After Ofcom discovered awareness was low among blind and partially sighted TV viewers, it decided to become a partner in an ad campaign running on television and in newspapers.
The campaign is funded by broadcasters with other support from the RNIB, which funded the creation of a logo and is helping to offer telephone support lines. Ofcom has contributed support in the form of staff time to help with planning and co-ordination.
The rationale of this kind of work is that “Awareness increases usage, and we can obviously make more of a case for funding something if more people are using it,” Hanson says.
Another key area of work over the coming year will be to look at ways of encouraging better harmonisation of UK law on access to telecoms, broadcasting and IT and European law. Currently, the UK’s Disability Discrimination Act covers services such as websites or the sale of mobile phones in a high street shop – outlawing discrimination in these areas – but not the basic accessibility of hardware devices such as the phones themselves. Hanson says. This is because all law related to the design of ‘manufactured goods’ is set by Europe.
“We are working with the new Equality and Human Rights Commission to look at how the UK’s Disability Discrimination Act can be made to work well alongside relevant European law,” she says.
“It’s very tricky – like the scenario of a person going into the shop, and the service they receive being covered but not the goods they buy. You have situations where for example the manual that comes with a mobile phone does not have to be accessible, since it is classed as part of the ‘manufactured goods’ to which it belongs so a phone might actually be accessible but no large print manual can be requested. It’s illogical to the disabled person – all they know is they’re getting a raw deal.”
Some disability organisations are calling for an EU Accessibility Directive which would encompass manufactured goods. Hanson says, “We want to make sure that if the European law is amended at some point, we are representing the interests of disabled users.”
Ultimately, all parts of UK and European law need to work together to ensure accessibility and usability is designed into digital communications goods and services from the outset, Hanson says.
“Good design, like handsets with big buttons, can help many people, from those with low vision to older people with dexterity difficulties,” she says. “And good design doesn’t cost any more than bad design – it just needs to be there from the outset.
“With buildings, there are regulations that make doorways wider and light switches lower, to enhance accessibility for wheelchair users. But in the communications sector, we’ve got a long way to go.”