By Suzanne Robitaille Although technological advances benefit everyone, they can dramatically improve the lives of people with disabilities. Yet industry and the disabled are often at loggerheads. The latter want government to legislate that communication products be fully accessible -- a move that businesses complain might cut into profits or shrink innovation.
That's why there's so much interest in the Internet Policy Working Group (IPWG), a Federal Communications Commission task force, which held a summit in early May, 2004, in an effort to define and shape government's role in making sure the disabled benefit from technological innovation.
"VIRTUALLY UNLIMITED" POTENTIAL. Part of the IPWG's summit debate was devoted to disabled access to increasingly popular technologies such as voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), which routes phone calls over the Net. The FCC is increasingly concerned about accessibility as more communications services move to Internet-based platforms.
Research outfit Gartner says sales of IP-capable voice systems in North America had surpassed the figures for traditional phone systems by the end of 2003. By 2006, sales of traditional phones will be "relatively insignificant," the firm predicts. With VoIP's ability to integrate voice, video, and data over one secure network, it offers phone service with impressive bells and whistles -- features that especially empower the disabled. Says Jonathan Adelstein, an FCC commissioner: "The potential is virtually unlimited."
However, Section 255 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act requires telecom companies to provide equal access to phones and phone services for the nation's 54 million people with disabilities. Traditional telcos fulfill this requirement by providing a relay service for the hearing-impaired, who access it via teletype phones (TTY -- about the size of a small laptop computer with a keyboard and a small text screen) or through an Internet-linked computer, personal digital assistants (PDAs), or Web-capable phones.
This is how hearing-impaired people "talk" to an operator at the telco, who then relays their typed words to a hearing person. The relay service, which costs telecoms about $1.50 a minute to provide, is reimbursed by the federal government.
GOOD COMPROMISE. VoIP providers are resisting being considered telecoms. Forcing VoIP providers to act like a regulated telecom, the industry argues, would weigh it down with heavy taxes, force expensive concessions for the disabled, and wipe out many fledgling outfits.
Disability advocates at the IPWG summit maintained their call for the FCC to require that VoIP hardware and software manufacturers address accessibility issues for disabled persons under Section 255. VoIP is "a telecom service and should be treated as one," says Paul Schroeder, vice-president of the American Foundation for the Blind. VoIP providers say they'll do their best, but they don't want to be responsible for creating custom products and services for the disabled.
As the FCC mulls its decision, some businesses may have hit on a good compromise: find universal solutions that would appease everyone, including the disabled. The industry's thinking goes like this. If they can meet most accessibility needs based on what's also likely to be popular with mainstream consumers -- features like videophone calls, for example -- they can avoid the expensive burden of regulatory requirements.
"TOTAL CONVERSATION." Consider wireless carrier T-Mobile USA, which makes the Sidekick, a color PDA that offers e-mail, text messaging, Web browsing, and phone service for a monthly rate of around $35. Around 10% of Sidekick's users are hearing-impaired, says Harold Saltors, T-Mobile's director of regulatory affairs. "This is an example of market-driven needs," he says.
While many deaf people love the Sidekick, especially since they can make wireless relay calls without the TTY, it doesn't meet all their needs. For one, the phone's quality isn't very good, so the hard-of-hearing often can't use it. And unlike the federally funded relay service, Sidekick costs users $6 a month to place TTY calls to other deaf people.
Another industry solution is termed "total conversation," which incorporates voice, video, and text over the Net into every communications product. The text is entered and displayed in real time via a keyboard, handwriting-recognition, or voice-recognition technology. This concept holds promise because it gives all users a choice about which mode they want to communicate in. A deaf-blind person could sign his conversation then read the response on text with a Braille display. A hearing-impared person might use text for the main communication, then video to show their emotional reaction to the conversation.
START WITH ACCESS. Santa Clara (Calif.)-based communications outfit 8x8 is also out to lead the way. Its Packet8 offers unlimited voice and video calls over IP for about $20 a month at home or $40 at the office. A small device that plugs into your Internet connection at home is provided, over which the calls are routed using a phone number from a local 8x8 center.
As a small company, President Barry Andrews says layering standard requirements onto Packet8 could hurt business. He thinks making a mainstream product, then adapting it, is a better solution. "Once we define the problem...we can easily solve it, especially if it's IP-based," he says.
AOL uses the universal approach in its e-mail program. It lets blind users -- or anyone -- read e-mail over the phone, and also initiate e-mails by recording a phone message. This is useful for blind travelers since they don't always have access to AOL e-mail unless they also bring along a screen reader for their laptops.
Such efforts are a good start, but the products that are the most user-friendly for the disabled tend to be those created with their specific needs in mind. For example, deaf people using videophones need more than just simultaneous voice, video, and text. They need audio output jacks for loop headsets and assistive-listening devices. They need a clear, strong signal, good volume control, and compatibility with hearing aids or cochlear implants without interference.
A FINE LINE. "The underlying driving force is that it's not good business to do things that don't generate the most profit," says Gregg Vanderheiden, director of Trace, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison research-and-development center that focuses on technology and disability. "We have to put accessibility into the profit equation."
Advocates say the FCC task force should make sure development of emerging technologies take the disabled into account. They point out that Title IV of the Americans with Disabilities Act has a clause that would allow Washington to expand rule to include Internet technologies like VoIP. "Regulations can keep good actors from losing ground to bad actors," Vanderheiden says.
There's a fine line to walk here. Regulations would help the disabled tremendously but might stifle the industry. A better accessibility solution may be for corporations to adopt technical and design standards that they can use as guidelines as they develop technologies that are universally usable. That way, the disabled can buy new technology off the shelf that nondisabled people will buy, too. Says American Foundation for the Blind's Schroeder: "We're not looking for an imposed solution, nor do we want to be bought off with a scheme that says 'special devices for special people.'"
As Internet technology spreads and becomes an increasingly powerful part of the nation's communications structure, the FCC should keep a close watch -- and make sure that no one gets left behind. Robitaille writes Assistive Technology, only for BusinessWeek Online