FCC Highlights Accessibility Challenges for Individuals with Cognitive Disabilities

On October 6, 2016, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a White Paper entitled Individuals with Cognitive Disabilities: Barriers to and Solutions for Accessible Information and Communication Technologies” containing best practices for equipment manufacturers and service providers looking to comply with the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act and the FCC’s accessibility rules. This release teed up FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s remarks later that day at the Coleman Institute Conference on Cognitive Disabilities and Technology. These events come after the FCC hosted its first-ever Summit and Expo on Telecommunications Needs of People with Cognitive Disabilities in October 2015 and demonstrate a strong focus of the FCC on making sure communications equipment and services are accessible to people with all kinds of disabilities.

In his remarks, Chairman Wheeler expressed that there are almost 30 million Americans with cognitive disabilities and their access to communication technologies is often out of reach. He highlighted the great potential that computing and communications technologies hold for enabling this community. According to the Chairman, this requires consideration of accessibility at the beginning of the development process for technologies and devices and allowing consumers to better customize their devices.

The Chairman also spotlighted the development of a set of Cognitive Disability Best Practices for industry that was recently approved by the FCC’s Disability Advisory Committee. The Best Practice document encourages companies to (a) build collaborative relationships with people with cognitive disabilities and their organizations; (b) stay updated on emerging research and standards; (c) include people with cognitive disabilities in market research and product testing; (d) incorporate capabilities that allow for customization of features and functions to make access to off-the-shelf products easier; and (e) offer accessible instructions, user guides and other support services to enable people with cognitive disabilities to independently, or with caregivers, learn to use communications products and services.

The White Paper outlines what access to information and communications technologies for people with cognitive disabilities will involve. The White Paper identifies the following barriers to adoption for people with cognitive disabilities: (1) lack of accessible products; (2) lack of outreach to people with cognitive disabilities about existing features that may enable accessible use of devices; and (3) frequency of lower income among people with cognitive disabilities. The White Paper also outlines a number of solutions for inclusion of people with cognitive disabilities including more detail on the Best Practice guidance.

The FCC also recently released a Public Notice providing guidance on how to make emergency information on television more accessible to people with disabilities including those with cognitive disabilities. They recommended the use of plain and understandable English and other means of content representation including pictorial or auditory descriptions.

The FCC has stated that it is committed to ensuring the needs of this community will be addressed by communications technology and innovations going forward.