Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bill ensuring technology accessibility for blind individuals introduced to Congress

Imagine finally taking the plunge and updating your office equipment with the latest versions of everything, only to find that one or more of your employees are unable to use the equipment because they cannot see the controls. Technology has significantly changed much of the equipment at our disposal. Buttons, knobs and switches have been replaced with some type of visual display that is difficult or impossible for individuals who are blind or have low-vision to see. In an effort to make things easier and prevent people who are blind or have low-vision from being left behind, Rep Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) recently introduced the Technology Bill of Rights for the Blind (H.R. 4533) into Congress.

“The importance of access to technology in today’s society cannot be overstated. In many cases, a person’s livelihood depends upon the ability to use technology,” said Schakowsky. She feels the bill will enable people who are blind or have low-vision to compete “with their sighted peers and remain productive members of society.”

H.R. 4533 provides for a study and report on accessibility by blind consumers and will establish minimum nonvisual standards for “certain electronic devices.” Although the bill is concerned with consumption of “everyday products” like consumer electronic devices and home appliances (i.e. televisions, dishwashers, etc.), the bill specifically mentions office technology devices and notes that many new devices “require user interaction with visual displays, on-screen menus, touch screens, and other interfaces that are inaccessible to blind or low-vision individuals.”

While the bill is aimed at manufacturers, one can’t help but wonder if employers will be affected. Under H.R. 4533, in the section granting a private right of action, there is a provision under relief that states that if an employment opportunity is lost because of equipment that does not meet the minimum standard, that person may be awarded monetary damages “the value of such employment opportunity.” Would an employer be required to participate in a lawsuit in order to determine the accurate value of the opportunity or would a court use some other method?

The bill also provides for the establishment of an office within the Department of Commerce to enforce its standards. H.R. 4533, cosponsored by ten Representatives, was referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on January 27, 2010.

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