Obama signs technology access bill for disabled

WASHINGTON: Blind and deaf people in the United States will be able to more easily use smartphones, the Internet and other technologies that are staples of life and work under a Bill just signed into law.

Such a step has been a priority of advocates for the millions of people who cannot see or hear.

In the East Room of the White House, where he was flanked on stage by lawmakers and Stevie Wonder, President Barack Obama portrayed the occasion as another step in guaranteeing equal access, opportunity and respect for all Americans.

He recalled celebrating this year’s 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, banning workplace discrimination against qualified people with disabilities and requiring improved access to public places and transportation.

“We’ve come a long way but even today, after all the progress that we’ve made, too many Americans with disabilities are still measured by what folks think they can’t do, instead of what we know they can do,” Obama said.

The new law “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,” he said, from navigating a TV or DVD menu to sending an e-mail on a smartphone.

“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,” Obama said.

In one corner of the East Room, sign language interpreters translated Obama’s remarks as he spoke. Across the room, his words scrolled on a large video monitor with help from a stenographer who transcribed them.

Under the law, the quality of life will improve for 25 million people who are blind or have difficulty seeing, along with the estimated 36 million people who are deaf or hard of hearing, advocacy groups say.

Nondisabled people stand to benefit, too. They may find the devices and screens easier to use.

The law sets federal guidelines that require the telecommunications industry to: • Make getting to the Internet easier by improving the user interfaces on smartphones; • Provide audible descriptions of onscreen action to help the blind more fully enjoy television; • Add captions to online TV programming to help the deaf; • Make the equipment used for Internet telephone calls compatible with hearing aids; and, • Add a button or other switch to TV remote controls for simpler access to closed captioning on television.

Paul Schroeder, a vice-president at the American Foundation for the Blind, said many blind or deaf people have had to spend hundreds of dollars on costly accessories or software to make their cellphones and other devices easier to use.

“We hope that companies will start working immediately on making solutions available and affordable for people with disabilities,” he said.

Blind since childhood, Schroeder described the Bill as “life changing.”

“As a person who is blind, it will bring some of the new technologies that are changing the workplace, education and leisure into my hands,” he said. — AP

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