Out-Law News 2 min. read

US law requires accessible smartphones and set-top boxes for disabled users

A law has been passed in the US which demands that mobile phone makers and networks and cable television companies and broadcasters ensure that their services and technologies are accessible to disabled users.

US President Barack Obama signed the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act into law last week. The Act will ensure that technical standards are set and adhered to that will make it possible for users with disabilities to access information services.

The law will apply to mobile phones, television set-top boxes and other digital information devices.

The law mandates telecoms regulator the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to set regulations for advanced communications services which providers will have to meet to make sure their material is accessible to people with disabilities.

Within three years of the passing of the Act browsers on mobile phones will have to be accessible and support functions designed for accessibility; and the FCC will be asked to set out a timescale within which material which was captioned when broadcast is also captioned online.

The FCC will investigate the challenges inherent in mandating video description for online video; while the Act will also ensure that smartphones are hearing aid-compatible.

"The bill I’m signing today into law will better ensure full participation in our democracy and our economy for Americans with disabilities," said Obama at the signing ceremony. "The ... Act will make it easier for people who are deaf, blind or live with a visual impairment to do what many of us take for granted – from navigating a TV or DVD menu to sending an email on a smart phone."

"It sets new standards so that Americans with disabilities can take advantage of the technology our economy depends on. And that’s especially important in today’s economy, when every worker needs the necessary skills to compete for the jobs of the future," he said.

"These changes are about guaranteeing equal access, equal opportunity, and equal respect for every American," said Obama.

"This law is life-changing for the millions of us with disabilities who are too often unable to take advantage of new technologies," said Paul Schroeder, vice president of programs and policy at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). "It opens the door to the digital age, and gives Americans with visual or hearing impairments equal access to smart phones, emergency broadcast information, the menus and controls on televisions and cable TV guides, and much more."

Telecoms firms in the UK are under an obligation to provide certain services to ensure that disabled users can use their communications networks. These include free directory enquiries; alternative bill formats, such as braille; text relay services; and third party bill management for those who need help to manage their affairs.

The Equality Act also applies to services provided in Great Britain. It forbids companies from offering services which are discriminatory in relation to a person's disability. Service providers must make "reasonable adjustments" to make sure their services are usable by people with disabilities, it says.

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