Celebrating the ADA: a look at tech advancements over the years

Thursday - 7/22/2010, 8:19pm EDT

Karen Peltz Strauss, deputy bureau chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, FCC

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Can you believe it? The law that ensures that people with disabilities are put on a level playing field with everyone is 20 years old. The Americans with Disabilities Act's 20th Anniversary has been commemorated around the government, and the technological advances in communications access products and services have been a big part of that celebration.

"Technology is evolving at such a rapid pace that it's really extraordinary, there's really no boundaries at all anymore," Karen Peltz Strauss, deputy bureau chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission, said.

Technologies such as captioned telephones which allows those that are hard of hearing to both use residual hearing and read in communicating, and closed captioning have made communications products and services increasingly accessible to people with disabilities. Often though, Strauss said, accessibility is an afterthought in the communications industry.

"That's biggest challenge, making sure that people with disabilities are considered in the design and development stages of products and services," Strauss said. "All too often the companies want to build the latest and greatest and sleekest models for the biggest markets, and people with disabilities, while they're a big market overall, about 54 million Americans, they're divided up by disabilities."

So instead of being one large market share of 54 million, Strauss explained, they're divided into smaller individual markets of blind, deaf, deaf blind, or speech disabled.

"Those markets don't exert sufficient market forces to influence the design of products, so very often products and services will be built without considering the needs of people with disabilities," Strauss said.

Many wouldn't consider the FCC to be as involved with accessibility issues, but it has been one of the lead agencies in observing the ADA anniversary, and along with the White House and Department of Commerce held a a Technology Showcase.

"There were many laws that were spurred by the passage of the ADA, including laws requiring closed captioning, and laws generally requiring access to telecommunication services and products," Strauss said. "We implement and enforce all of those laws."

Closed captioning in particular was a major stride in making videos, movies and television accessible to the hearing impaired community. Now, however, it's found even in bars and restaurants for the larger public's use.

"Almost any accessibility technology eventually is going to make its way to the mainstream public. It maybe designed for people without access, but in the end it benefits everyone," Strauss said.

So what's the future? Closed caption radios, and touch screen phones for the blind.

"When those phones first came out, the blind community was so upset because they thought they'd never have access to them," Strauss said. "There are now technologies that have audio output and allow blind people to access all the information that you can get on a touch screen smartphone, can be obtained through audio output through this new technology. That's a pretty 'wow' technology!"

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