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Last week, President Obama signed a new federal law aimed at increasing content on mobile phones and TV for people with disabilities. Advocates say it’s one of the most sweeping pieces of disability legislation ever passed. We explore the law, and the challenges of increasing content accessibility on mobile phones, TV and other broadcast platforms.
- Mark Richert Director of Public Policy, American Foundation for the Blind (AFB)
- Rosaline Hayes Crawford Director, Law and Advocacy Center, National Association of the Deaf
- Larry Goldberg Director of Media Access, WGBH (Boston)
Video: President Obama Signs The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, D.C.'s consumer advocate. We talk with the Office of the People's Counsel, but first, leveling the digital playing field. Last Friday, President Obama signed the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, a sweeping new law making it easier for people with hearing and visual disabilities to access TV, internet and smartphones. But advocates say it will also bring benefits to all Americans. Consider the remote control, a device so complicated in the age of on-demand digital cable, it leaves even the most tech-savvy TV watcher scratching its -- scratching his or her head.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIUnder the new law, companies need to offer a simpler option so people who can't see can still channel surf and access all content. It also calls for easier access to closed captioning for deaf viewers, but it could also mean a simpler, more functional product for all consumers. Joining us to discuss the issue of expanding access to broadcast technology in studio is Mark Richert. He is director of public policy with the American Foundation for the Blind, AFB. Mark Richert, thank you for joining us.
MR. MARK RICHERTIt's a pleasure. Thank you very much.
NNAMDIJoining us from -- by telephone from Hartford, Conn. is Rosaline Crawford, director of the Law and Advocacy Center of the National Association of the Deaf. Rosaline, thank you for joining us.
MS. ROSALINE HAYES CRAWFORDThank you, Kojo. Happy to be with you.
NNAMDIAlso joining us by telephone from Upstate New York is Larry Goldberg who is director of the National Center for Accessible Media and director of Media Access with WGBH/Boston. Larry, thank you for joining us.
MR. LARRY GOLDBERGGreat pleasure to be here. Thank you.
NNAMDIGot to tell our listeners over the next two days we'll be exploring technology from the perspective of people with disabilities and how some forward-looking companies are designing technology with an eye towards universal access. And we'd like to hear your thoughts. Are you a person with a sight or hearing disability? Is new technology making it easier to communicate and receive information? By the way, we are using simultaneous transcription from the website speche.com. You can find that at a link at our website kojoshow.org. Of course, if you'd like to join the conversation, you can just call us at 800-433-8850. Or send us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet @kojoshow. Or go to the aforementioned website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there.
NNAMDIMark, this past Friday, President Obama signed the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act. You've called this the most sweeping piece of disability law since -- well, ever. What exactly does this bill do?
RICHERTYeah, I was -- hopefully, it's not too superlative on my part. But, yeah, I think it's really no exaggeration that this legislation, once it's fully implemented, is really going to affect the daily lives of all people with disabilities and indeed much, even well beyond our community.
NNAMDIWhy? What does this bill do?
RICHERTWell, there's three major areas. It will make sure that the cool, new technology smartphones that allow us to get text -- send and receive messaging, e-mail, browsing the web and all of those features are accessible to us, that, I -- as someone who has been blind all my life -- will be able to use that phone with an audible output to it. That emergency information that is so available to folks with sight that comes over our television, it will be accessible to me. And that the fun, new video technologies, and indeed, video programming itself, television programming is -- becomes much more fully accessible to us. So it's very exciting what this bill is going to be doing for us.
NNAMDIRosaline, are Mark's superlatives appropriate?
CRAWFORDAbsolutely. No question about it. It is the most sweeping legislation of its kind ever. It also includes additional communication accessibility features for individuals who are both deaf and blind, who require specialized equipment that is extraordinarily expensive to produce. And we will get them hooked up in telecommunications, finally included.
NNAMDILarry Goldberg, your take on this legislation?
GOLDBERGWell, I, myself, am a great, great believer in the power of technology and how it can serve people, how wonderful it is in the home, in the workplace and in schools. And I know what it can do by and for people. And I think this legislation helps drop the barriers for many, many people who haven't been able to participate in the digital revolution on TV, on the internet. Now is the time. We have the tools, and we can really make some great advances.
NNAMDIMark, this legislation covers a whole lot of different facets of information technology.
NNAMDISo maybe, first and foremost, it makes sense for us to talk about why this law is necessary. For the purposes of this law, you say we should think of blindness and deafness at their core, a sensory disabilities that make up obstacles to receiving information.
RICHERTYeah, I think that that makes -- you know, it's easy to think about disability in generic terms. I, as someone with a disability, have, you know, faced the same kind of discrimination that other folks with disabilities might face or the same misunderstandings about my abilities or so forth. But really, for someone who's blind or visually impaired -- and certainly for folks who are deaf or hard of hearing -- our disabilities are all about getting information and then communicating that information. And so this legislation is key, in the case of someone like myself who is blind, to receiving information on terms of genuine equality with everybody else.
NNAMDIGetting calls already, so I will go the telephones. I will start with Trent in Washington, D.C. Trent, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TRENTHow you doing, Kojo?
TRENTI am legally blind. I quit driving in 2000 and had some adaptive technologies to law school. They had books on tape that were really difficult because you can't find your place. You can't go to page 852, like I said. And things like CDs and computers are making that more promising. I recently went for a low-vision assessment at the Pentagon. And they have some incredible things, especially for veterans or other people who are facing disabilities that, you know, you can put small print under your computer screen. And it will take a picture of it, and you can manipulate it in Word or something like that. It's amazing.
NNAMDIMark, are you familiar with that?
RICHERTIt's incredible what technology can do. And, you know, what this law is going to be able to do for us is to say that those cool features that you find more and more in smartphones that allow us to read books. You know, once the technology is in that allows us to use text messaging, e-mail, web browsing, those technologies that make it useable for me are going to be -- have all kinds of applications, even into the kinds of things that he's talking about, being able to actually read materials. And, frankly, it's going to help get folks into the workforce more than we already are.
NNAMDITrent, thank you very much for your call. Rosaline, today, nearly all TV shows that air in primetime have closed captioning as required by the Federal Communications Commission. But in an age of web video, do these requirements extend to the internet? What would this new law do?
CRAWFORDThank you, Kojo, that's really important, not just for the 36 million people who are deaf or hard of hearing but also, as you've described earlier for others, that -- for television programs that are captioned, when they move to the internet in the future -- after this bill gets implemented, obviously -- the captions will go with them. What we don't have yet is captioning of TV series that are shown only on the internet. We don't -- we won't have that yet covered. We'll have to go back and get that at a later date. But for everything that is captioned on television, it will be captioned on the internet, which is just tremendous. So many people are watching television now on the internet, including my daughter who is 20 and who is deaf. She also wants to be able to watch TV programs on her laptop just like her hearing brother does, and she will be able to do that with this law.
NNAMDIBut a few years ago, religious broadcasters sought waivers from the closed captioning requirement, citing costs. Is it expensive to hire someone to this?
CRAWFORDIt is. Certainly, I don't think not as expensive as the air time. And I think Larry Goldberg can perhaps address the cost of captioning better than I can.
GOLDBERGYes. Well, the cost has come way down, even for the smallest of broadcasters, the smallest program producers. And you can find service providers these days will make it very inexpensive. So I think all those backlog of requests from both outdoor shows and religious broadcasts, they'll find themselves able to find a good, inexpensive, high-quality provider now.
NNAMDIBut, Rosaline, just because TVs and cable boxes have closed captioning, that doesn't mean they're easy to use. Apparently, on some boxes, it's extremely difficult to activate CC.
CRAWFORDThat's correct, Kojo, and that's one of the provisions we sought to address here is to make it a lot easier for people to find accessibility features, not just the closed captioning but also the video description for viewers who are blind, to have descriptions of what's happening on the screen be passed through and transmitted via a secondary audio channel and to have all of that much more accessible, including program guides and navigation guides, which I'm sure Mark can talk about further.
GOLDBERGI can give an example of...
NNAMDIGo ahead, Larry.
GOLDBERG...that user interface problem Rosaline is talking about. We do a lot of research and development and testing of cable systems. And one system we tested recently, it required six button presses to find the caption on-off switch, where you could also adjust the font and color -- very deep, deep into the menus. And for blind people to find the switch to turn on description, well, first of all, they can't see the screen. And this bill will actually make a requirement for providing talking cable set-top boxes and to unite the standards because presently you might actually have to find the button that says Spanish in order to get description. And all of that will be dealt with under FCC rule makings.
RICHERTKojo, under this bill -- when you first started off the show, you pointed out something -- which I think a lot of folks when we were pushing for this legislation missed -- which is that this is going to help a lot of people well beyond the folks that Rosaline, Larry and I represent. You know, that there's...
NNAMDIThere's the universal remote control.
RICHERTThe truth is -- and I'll do a quick shout-out for my boss, colleague and friend, Paul Schroeder. He's used the line that there's not a gym, you know, or bar in America that doesn't have closed captioning on anymore. I think -- I mean, the reality of it is, you know, these services are going to benefit lots of other people. And it's not just going to benefit us. Same thing with video description, which we haven't even talked about yet, but a service that will be -- that's designed specifically to help those of us who are visually impaired, get the most out of TV programming. But I'll bet you anything that once this legislation gets fully implemented, and we have more than 60, six-zero, more than 60 hours of video description available per week, that there's going to be a lot of other folks other than just myself who are blind using that video description.
NNAMDII got to tell you, most of us who do not have that disability walk into a bar, and if there's no closed captioning on, we demand it.
NNAMDIIt is our right as Americans to have closed captioning on the TV.
NNAMDIPlease, go ahead, Larry.
GOLDBERGIf you could -- if I get a second to explain what video description is because I bet...
NNAMDIOh, we're going to get to that in a second.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. And then we come back...
NNAMDI…we've actually have people hear some few clips -- a few clips of video description. You can call us at 800-433-8850, or join the conversation at our website, kojoshow.org. We're discussing expanding access to broadcast technology. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking about how to expand access to broadcast technology. Over the course of the next two days, we'll be exploring technology from the perspective of people with disabilities and how some forward-looking companies are designing technology with an eye towards universal access. We'd like to hear your thoughts on the issue. Are you a person with a sight or hearing disability? Is new technology making it easier to communicate and receive information? Call us at 800-433-8850. And we are using simultaneous transcription from speche.com. You can get a link to that at our website, kojoshow.org.
NNAMDIBut if you wanted to go directly to that website, remember, it is spelled S-P-E-C-H-E.com. S-P-E-C-H-E.com. Joining us in studio is Mark Richert, director of public policy with the American Foundation for the Blind. Rosaline Crawford is director of the Law and Advocacy Center of the National Association of the Deaf. She joins us by phone from Hartford, Conn. And Larry Goldberg is director of the National Center for Accessible Media and director of Media Access with WGBH/Boston. Larry, tell us a little bit more about the National Center for Accessible Media.
GOLDBERGYes. We're housed at WGBH, a public broadcaster up in Boston. And it's a research and development facility that was founded in 1993 to build on all the work we'd done where we invented captioning for television in 1972 and video description for the blind in 1990. And we realized that new technologies needed some attention as well in the early '90s. And so we take on many standards in R and D in development projects to try to make sure that all of the new media can be fully accessible as well.
NNAMDILet's talk about the video description you mentioned. This is an interesting service that literally describes what is happening during a television show or movie. We actually have an example of how that service is provided. Here, we have two examples as a matter of fact from the Disney-Pixar movie "Up." First, an iconic image of Disney -- anyone who has seen a Disney movie before immediately recognizes the Disney brand at the beginning -- a picture of a princess -- princess' palace with fireworks and music. This is what it sounds like when that's being described on the DVD.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMANIn logo, stars twinkle in the sky. Our view drifts down through clouds to a river that winds past hillsides. A train crosses the bridge, as a flag waves on top of a castle's tallest spire. A bright display of fireworks explodes in the sky. A glowing pinpoint of light arcs over the castle, leaving a trail of sparkling dust. Words appear. Walt Disney Pictures.
NNAMDIWe have an actual scene from the movie. In this scene, orderlies arrive at the main character's house. He's an old man who's being forced to move into a retirement home. He asks them to wait outside while he says goodbye to the house. But then, he transforms his house into something completely different. Here it is.
WOMANA giant sack rises from the roof. It opens, revealing thousands of floating balloons. As the orderlies stare, the balloons come together in a giant mass. Their strings vanish down the house's chimney. A lower corner of the house cracks. The base pulls away from the brick foundation. A power meter sparks. Baseboards snap apart, and the porch strains upward. An outdoor faucet breaks, jetting water. The house rises off the ground then swoops over the orderlies. They duck. The house bumps the van. Carl leans out his window.
CARLSo long, boys. I'll send you a postcard from Paradise Falls.
WOMANThe house rises further. As the balloon...
NNAMDIYou know, Larry Goldberg, Rosaline Crawford, Mark Richert, disability advocates succeeded once before in getting the government to require description in broadcast TV. But, Mark, it was challenged in court.
RICHERTYeah, it sure was. Unfortunately, I think there were a number of folks in the broadcast, cable and movie industries who sort of underestimated the demand and the value of video description. I got to tell you, I don't know if you were watching my face as these clips were being played...
NNAMDIYes, I was.
RICHERT...but I had a big smile.
RICHERTAnd I'll just relate a quick example for you. When I was in school, the remarkable "Eyes on the Prize" series was shown in class. And I remember, you know, sitting there listening to -- I've been blind all my life. And, you know, not necessarily being able to appreciate the visual images of those unbelievable, sometimes horrific scenes that that series about the civil rights struggle shows and -- I don't know, but maybe 20 years ago, finally saw a described version of the "Eyes on the Prize." And I can tell you, I had tears in my eyes. And that's the only way to really relate to a video where, frankly, there isn't dialogue available, or you can't pick up necessarily some of the details. That scene that you just played, if the description weren't on, none of your listeners would have had a clue what was going on, or they would have not been -- maybe they'd be able to guess at some points -- but the truth of the matter is that description is absolutely necessary.
NNAMDIYou mentioned "Eyes on the Prize." We have one of the producers of "Eyes on the Prize" on the broadcast last week. Judy Richardson has a new book about women in the student non-violent coordinating committee. Rosaline Crawford, what kind of resistance did you encounter to this bill?
CRAWFORDWell, we've been working together as a coalition since 2007, the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology. And we've been working fairly persistently with various groups and associations within the telecommunications industry. We actually did get support from some members of the industry for the bill that eventually was passed, or adopted by the Senate in a different version slightly, but eventually passed. So we've actually just been in constant communication and negotiations for the last three years and got Congress on board, and then we were done. Absolutely terrific.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones, here is Sid in Rockville, Md. Sid, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
SIDWell, Kojo, I want to pick up on something you talked about earlier, which is the cost of closed captioning webcast version of a program that was previously broadcast on television and that is, company that I work for, CPC in Rockville. We develop software that could do this automatically. We've developed it over 10 years ago, and frankly, there haven't been too many takers. I assume the law is going to change that. But for many shows, using the software, once it has been captioned for broadcast, it's basically an automatic process.
NNAMDILarry Goldberg, what do you say to that?
GOLDBERGThat's absolutely true. I know Sid's software. We developed some of our own called CaptionKeeper, and the standards are pretty much locked in and in place for web-based captioning. So as long as the show that aired on TV isn't changed significantly from what airs on the web -- which is carried on the web, moving over will be pretty straightforward. And this, I think, was not opposed significantly by the industry folks. I think they realized it was not a difficult task to move captioned TV shows from broadcast to the web.
NNAMDIWell, it's one thing, however, to lean on broadcasters and require them to caption things, but what about user-generated content? Is it realistic to expect a teenager who's posting a video of himself skateboarding on YouTube to provide captioning, Rosaline?
CRAWFORDThe legislation does not require captioning at all for user-generated media. However, interestingly for YouTube video posters, Google has an automatic caption and automatic time code program available to any YouTube video producer that they can use to generate and edit and produce final captions and make it very easy.
NNAMDIThat was developed and designed by a deaf engineer at Google. Tell us about Ken Harrenstien.
CRAWFORDKen is an engineer with Google, and he's been integrally involved with the development and distribution of this software. And it's just terrific. It's certainly a step in the right direction for anybody who's posting YouTube videos.
NNAMDIYes, go ahead, Larry.
GOLDBERGReally interesting experience being done on crowdsourcing of user-generated video to crowdsource the captioning and making sure that the quality can stay high 'cause sometimes automatic speech recognition isn't wholly accurate. And some very interesting work being done now on shared labor, so that a lot more of the videos that aren't covered by the law can be captioned, too.
NNAMDIWe got an e-mail from Mike in Baltimore who says, "The biggest problem with captioning on screen is they type it in all caps. Any graphic designer, typographer or signage and wayfinding designer will tell you it's much easier to read lowercase letters than all capital letters. I hope the new laws note this as not a requirement to use lowercase, but at least urges the use of lowercase with caps at the start of sentences for better readability on day-to-day captioning. Actually, if you rent a DVD and use captioning, you often get a very good text in lowercase like this e-mail," says Mike in Baltimore. What do you feel about that, Larry?
GOLDBERGHe's exactly right. In the early days of closed captioning, the fonts were so poor that we had to caption all uppercase where they wouldn't really be readable. But the advances in closed captioning fonts have moved on, and many of us who provide captions now are moving to mixed case and making sure that we get the best-looking captions, now that we have some really nice-looking fonts in the TV. So he's right.
NNAMDIAnd I'm understanding that if you're looking at the real life transcription, right now on speche.com, you'll see that it's written in lowercase with, I guess, caps at the start of sentences. So...
RICHERTI appreciate you providing that video description, Kojo. That was nice.
NNAMDIThank you. Here is Janice in Washington, D.C. Janice, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JANICEHi, Kojo. Glad you're having this program. It's a real celebration. Everything has been about the captioning and audio description so far, and I have a concern about smartphones. And maybe you're going to get to more of that tomorrow. But one of the things that I feel is that there has been a great deal of praise for one of the accessible -- or the only accessible, really -- smartphone, and that's with Apple. But one of the things about the iPhone is that it's flat screen. And I want to put the two cents in for a lot of people who are not going to be able to use that flat screen satisfactorily. I think most blind people -- I'm blind, too -- who have -- that love keyboarding are going to be good at flat screen. But we don't take into account people using one hand, people with cerebral palsy, people with Parkinson's and other...
JANICE...disabling conditions for the hands that are not going to be able to use this one sold in the lauding of what we have as accessible. We can't dismiss the fact that there are other disabilities that need other than the flat screen or some other programming.
NNAMDIAnd Mark has his iPhone with him right now, so he's the appropriate responder.
RICHERTI -- Janice is absolutely right. You know, the iPhone -- the folks at Apple have done a tremendous thing in that they have illustrated for us how doable it is to build accessibility into a fairly complicated device like the iPhone 4 and other devices that they sell. And what essentially they do is add a piece of software to their phone that essentially reads aloud to you the content of the screen. It's a remarkable device. The problem is we haven't seen the industry as a whole stand up and really respond to the needs of people with disabilities to provide a range of choices.
RICHERTSo what Janice is talking about is the fact that we need to go back, work -- continue to work with industry. And this new law is going to expect that the industry do it and allow, provide a range of choices for people, so that we're not just having to use a flat-screen approach like the iPhone, as fun as it may be, or to use expensive third party software -- which is, frankly, what a lot of blind and visually impaired folks are now having to do. You buy an expensive phone, and the only way that you get that sucker to work is that you have to go off and spend a lot more money often than you spend on the phone just to get it to work. And so what we're hoping happens is that there will be -- indeed be a range of choices that people with disabilities are going to have.
NNAMDIJanice, thank you for your call. And, finally, here's Maurice in Washington, D.C. Maurice, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MR. MAURICE ASUQUOHello, Kojo. How are you?
NNAMDIWould this be Maurice Asuquo?
ASUQUOThat is correct, Kojo.
NNAMDIMaurice Asuquo, born in Nigeria, living in Washington for many years, is blind and is a broadcaster who also teaches students. Maurice, good to hear from you. What is your comment or question?
ASUQUOWell, I just want to thank Mark, Janice and the whole crew for all of their wonderful contributions. And I just want to add that technology has absolutely made a change in my ability to do work and to help my students as well as my broadcast career. I only wish that some of this was available when -- many, many years ago. It would have made life a whole lot better. And I'm just glad to know that there's something new that, at least as far as the law, to help those of us that are definitely users of this technology to function.
NNAMDIAnd, Maurice, I'm just happy to hear from you and glad you're paying attention.
ASUQUOThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlways a pleasure to talk to you. I'm afraid we're just about out of time. But tomorrow, we'll be speaking with a technologist from the National Federation for the Blind who has worked with Apple to help Apple make the product more accessible. Tomorrow, we'll be talking about tech design. Thanking our guests today, Mark Richert is director of public policy with the American Foundation for the Blind. Mark, thank you for joining us.
RICHERTIt's really been a pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDIRosaline Crawford is director of the Law and Advocacy Center with the National Association of the Deaf. Rosaline, thank you for joining us.
CRAWFORDThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd Larry Goldberg is director of the National Center for Accessible Media and director of Media Access with WGBH/Boston. Larry, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, if you have got complaints about your utility bills or service, you'll want to talk with the People's Counsel of the District of Columbia. She joins us next. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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