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Proposed US Law Would Force Product Accessibility

Manufacturers and suppliers of consumer technology devices in the US could be forced to make all their products accessible to blind consumers, if proposed legislation is passed by Congress.

Introduced by Jan Schakowsky, a Democratic House of Representatives member from Illinois, the Technology Bill of Rights for the Blind Act 2010 ( http://www.opencongress.org/bill/111-h4533/text ) is based around creating accessible alternatives to what it calls “increasingly complex user interfaces” found in consumer electronics.

Many of these devices, from televisions and dishwashers to office equipment such as photocopiers and fax machines, are operated by touch-screen technology or other visual displays that are not accessible to blind people, the bill says. “This growing threat to the independence and productivity of blind people is unnecessary because electronic devices can easily be constructed with user interfaces that are not exclusively visual”, it says.

The draft law builds on guidelines set out in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires US Government bodies to engage in accessible IT and electronics procurement ( See: http://www.section508.gov ).

The bill is divided into three parts: first, to commission study to determine non-visual control methods for consumer electronics; second, to create a set of “minimum non-visual access standards” to which devices should conform; and third, to establish an “office of non-visual access compliance” to carry out the study and enforce the access standards.

Peter Abrahams, accessibility and usability practice leader at IT research organisation Bloor Research ( http://www.bloorresearch.com/ ), told E-Access Bulletin that as well as being a significant step for accessible manufacturing of consumer electronics, the bill could, in theory, also be used to enforce website accessibility. “I can imagine you could say that [a website] is the interface to a product or service, and therefore it has to be accessible and be covered by the same bill. My view is that in the future it could be used to push [the web accessibility] agenda as well.”

However, it may take some time for manufacturers and website owners to be affected by the technology bill, even if it is passed, warned Abrahams. The bill needs to pass both houses of the Congress by a majority vote, before being examined and signed by President Obama. This process, combined with setting up the office of non-visual access compliance and carrying out the study and report as set out in the bill, means it could be several years before the proposed legislation comes into effect.

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