In 2013, a number of companies reached out to the blind and deaf communities. Whether it was more movie theaters offering audio description and captioning, Wal-Mart’s ScripTalk service or Apple’s improved accessibility features with the release of IOS7, it seemed to be a productive year on that front. There wasn’t much progress however in Congress and a high percentage of blind and deaf people continued to be unemployed.
So what will happen in 2014? What can blind and deaf communities expect to look forward or not look forward to? Here are three areas that certainly will continue to dominate the focus of many of the national organizations that cater toward those communities and that those individuals can expect.
1. Congressional Action
Since 2014 is an election year, it is unclear how much progress the blind and deaf communities can expect to make in Washington. Election years typically see a lot of party bickering and many of the less nationally-discussed issues find themselves on the back burner. Many groups however, say they recognize that one of the most effective ways to change perspectives starts with passing laws. With that being said, there are a number of bills in Congress that organizations such as the National Association of the Deaf and the American Council of the Blind are getting behind and a few that they are trying to bring to the floor.
Low-Vision Aids Covered Under Medicare
Currently, Medicare will not cover many purchases featuring a lens. Introduced by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla) in December, This bill allows Medicare to cover purchases of many low-vision devices that cost more than $500 if the patient’s doctor deems the device medically necessary. This would allow people with low vision to use Medicare to purchase items such as CCTVs. If passed, devices that feature one or more lenses would be treated under Medicare the same way glasses are. H.R. 3749 is currently introduced and a vote could occur in the house within the next few weeks.
There are two bills in Congress that if passed would require changes to how some public facilities accommodate deaf and hard of hearing people. Both bills were introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) in March of last year, but the senate is likely to debate these shortly. One bill (S. 556) is trying to amend the Air Carrier Access Act and requires that all in-flight entertainment such as movies and TV shows feature captioning. The second (S. 555) is seeking to require that all movie theaters with two or more screens provide open and close captioning. This bill also requires that those same theaters offer audio description.
Push for Education legislation
There is a joint effort by both communities to push legislation that would create guidelines and establish criteria dealing with the way children who are blind or deaf are taught and learn. The Anne Sullivan Macy Act, named after Helen Keller’s teacher, is a proposed bill that would establish by federal law that all students with vision loss are properly identified and mandates that their teachers are evaluated and held to national standards. The proposed legislation is written by the American Foundation of the Blind and would amend the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to include a provision that ramps up the Department of Education’s responsibility to monitor and report on students with vision loss to insure they’re receiving the proper education. AFB as well as other organizations say a number of blind or low-vision students are simply provided with Braille or assistive technology but aren’t taught properly, which is contributing to the majority of those students not being prepared for college or the work force.
Similar legislation being proposed is the Alice Cogswell Act. This bill is sponsored by The Conference of Educational administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf. It would also add the the IDEA by helping states get an accurate count of the deaf and hard of hearing students they are serving and establishes guidelines to help those students reach their goals. It mandates full-communication access and expands their core curriculum and strives to provide updated educational teaching methods for teachers. Look for both of these bills to be combined in 2014, as the lobbying efforts continue.
2. Continued Technology Progress
2014 is likely to see what we saw in 2013; more companies looking to include blind or deaf customers in the products they make. A lot of this will be by choice, but some of it will be by force.
For a few years now, Apple has been leading the way in the smart phone market as far as accessibility features go. Apple continues to focus on accessibility in 2014, as they promise to make the majority of video content on ITunes feature close captioning by March. The one thing you’ll certainly see in 2014 is a more concentrated effort by Google and other companies to give Apple a run for its money. For example, Google’s Android system is looking to expand its accessibility features to more phones as well as improve on the features they already offer. On YouTube, Google is making it easier for anyone to add captioning to their videos as well as improving a feature the company recently laid out in which users can customize captions on videos including changing font size, color and the way it’s displayed. 2014 will likely see companies that cater to blind and deaf customers expand their reach, such as GW Micro’s offering of window eyes to anyone who has Microsoft Office 2010 or 2013.
The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act
Passed in 2010, this law updates the U.S’. telecommunications protections for people with disabilities, ensuring that blind and deaf people have access to broadband, mobile and digital innovations. A number of these rules have already gone into law, including requiring that all video programming devices such as IPods and computers provide a captioning feature, requirement that TV programs that utilize audio description or close captioning must also do so over the internet, and a requirement that all internet-based services be accessible to people with disabilities. In 2014, new requirements will go into effect, which could change lives for many blind and deaf people. One of those is the requirement that cable and satellite companies make all on screen guides and menus accessible to people who cannot read them. Another requirement is that deaf and hard of hearing people have equal access to text-based emergency services. As more and more of the law’s requirements go into effect, the FCC as well as various organizations will propose necessary fixes if need be.
Development of breakthrough Technology
2014 is likely to be a year filled with research into exciting technology that will make life a lot easier for blind and deaf people. As research into areas of digital innovation expands generally, it also expands within those communities. For example, there is significant research going into computer recognition software so that sign language can be picked up by the computer and transcribed into text or speech, making it easier for deaf and hard of hearing people to communicate and have conversations with others. Research has also been conducted into using technology similar to Google Glass to provide legally blind people with glasses that can enhance their vision by showing video of their surrounding area, allowing users to freeze frames, zoom and change contrast. Both of these have garnered significant research so far.
3. More of the same
For many of the leading organizations as well as people within the blind and deaf communities, 2014 will simply mean more and more of the same. Lots of people see 2014 as a year apart of a bigger effort to change society’s view and outlook of blind and deaf people. They state that progress is certainly being made, but with intolerance high and understanding low, there’s a long way to go. They still see employment discrimination, lack of acceptance and a non-equal playing field as some of the hurdles still needed to jump over.
“I find that you don’t judge progress by days, but sometimes it’s years by years,” said Eric Bridges, policy director for the American Council of the Blind. “There are no quick fixes; it is an evolution over time.”
In a statement, the National Association of the Deaf said “The NAD is grateful for all technological and attitudinal breakthroughs in barriers over the 100 plus years, however, sees many years of work ahead of us.”
2014 may seem like just another year for those who are blind and deaf, but with more focus on legislation, an increased effort to make most technology accessible and a continued effort by groups to shift society’s perception, blind and deaf communities have a lot to look forward to. Although 2014 may seem like more of the same, it could be the year looked back on as the one that started the trek upward.