Legal Trends for Accessible Media

A young woman types on a computer with projector screens.
Several laws and court cases offer clarification on the need for accessibility in a variety of media tools - many of which are commonly used in virtual exchanges.

What an age we live in! Advances in technology have made it possible for us to learn, work, innovate, network, and be entertained in ways that weren't possible not so long ago. With the support of the following U.S. laws and policies, people with disabilities can be full and active participants - not just spectators - in the age of exciting new technologies, especially those that bring people together virtually.

21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010

This act works to ensure that all communications, media services, content, equipment, emerging technologies are accessible to people with disabilities. This includes:

  • Making access to the internet possible through improved user interfaces for smart phones
  • Enabling Americans who are blind to enjoy TV more fully through audible descriptions of the on-screen action
  • Making TV program guides and selection menus accessible to people with vision loss
  • Providing Americans who are deaf with the ability to watch new TV programs online with captions
  • Mandating that remote controls have a button or similar mechanism to easily access the closed captioning on broadcast and pay TV
  • Requiring that telephone equipment used to make calls over the Internet is compatible with hearing aids
  • For low-income Americans who are both deaf and blind, providing up to $10 million per year to purchase communications equipment to access the telephone system and the Internet so these individuals can more fully participate in society.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act

The Rehabilitation Act specifies that electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government must be accessible to persons with disabilities. Under Section 508, these disability types are covered:

  • Visual disabilities (Examples: blindness, low vision and lack of color perception)
  • Hearing disabilities (Examples: hard of hearing, deafness)
  • People with physical disabilities (Examples: limited strength, reach or manipulation, tremor, lack of sensation)
  • People with speech disabilities
  • People with language, learning or cognitive disabilities (Examples: reading disabilities, thinking, remembering, sequencing disabilities)
  • Other disabilities (Examples: epilepsy, short stature)
  • Individuals with any combination of these disabling conditions (Examples: deaf-blindness)

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Titles II (State and Local Governments) and III (Public Accommodations) of the ADA describe the use of “auxiliary aids” to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to goods and services that are available to the public. A number of court cases have recently interpreted these to apply more broadly to online services. Perhaps the best known case is National Association of the Deaf, et al. v. Netflix, in which Netflix agreed to caption 100% of its online streaming by 2014.

Meanwhile, Title IV (Telecommunications Relay Services) of the ADA requires the implementation of a nationwide telecommunications relay system that is accessible to deaf and hard of hearing individuals as well as those with speech disabilities.    

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

IDEA requires a Fair and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for all students with disabilities. In order to ensure that this takes place, many students with disabilities are set up with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) at their school. With the increased use of information and communications technologies to advance learning objectives in the classroom, accommodations are often built into a student’s IEP to facilitate their full participation alongside their peers with and without disabilities.