CHICAGO – Emergency call centers could be equipped to communicate by text message. Websites might need to be programmed to speak to blind users. Movie theaters might have to install technology to allow the deaf to read captions on small screens mounted at their seats.
These and other proposals will be on the agenda this week as federal officials begin seeking ideas for expanding the Americans with Disabilities Act. Twenty years after the law was adopted, the government wants to move the regulations beyond wheelchair ramps and accessible elevators into cyberspace and personal technology.
The updated regulations could mean sweeping changes across many industries and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
An estimated 40 million blind and deaf Americans stand to reap the biggest benefits, including 43-year-old Peter Berg, who lost his vision to diabetes in his 20s. Using software that reads content to him, he can surf websites for work, check Facebook and pay his bills online.
But he hit a wall while trying to set up an account on a popular website that allows electronic money transfers.
"You needed to click on something, and it wasn't identifiable to the screen reader," said Berg, who provides technical assistance about the ADA.
The effort to update the law begins Thursday with a Justice Department hearing in Chicago. Additional hearings are scheduled for Dec. 16 in Washington and Jan. 10 in San Francisco.
The meetings are designed to gather input from the disabled and from industries that may be affected.
"We think it's important as a way to generate interest," said John Wodatch, chief of the department's disability rights section.
New rules could take effect as soon as 2012.
For more than a decade, the Justice Department has interpreted the ADA to apply to websites that offer goods and services. But now that idea could be clarified, and timetables for compliance could be set.
Judy Brewer, director of the Web Accessibility Initiative at the World Wide Web Consortium, said the government is mainly addressing "parts of the Web in the U.S. that are involved in accommodating the public, which includes people with disabilities."
The cost for each site depends on its size, the type of content it offers and whether it's already designed using Web standards, said Brewer, whose agency is the Internet's international standards organization.
Website operators should be asking themselves what they could be losing in market share because they are "unwittingly putting up barriers," Brewer said.
A 2003 study commissioned by Microsoft found that 1 in 4 working-age adults has eyesight trouble, 1 in 4 has a dexterity impairment and 1 in 5 has difficulty hearing.
Websites are becoming increasingly accessible, in part because of lawsuits. In 2008, Target Corp. agreed in a California class-action settlement to pay $6 million to blind plaintiffs who were unable to use its site.
But what about personal photos on Facebook? Does Facebook have to make sure the photo content can be read aloud to a blind user?
Perhaps not. The Justice Department is considering making it clear that some personal, noncommercial content would not be affected.
Will some website operators resist the changes?
Disability attorney Lainey Feingold hopes not.
"Web accessibility should not be a new concept to any company with a website," said Feingold, who is based in Berkeley, Calif. And the ADA has an "undue burden" defense, which means that no company will have to make changes if doing so would require significant difficulty or expense.
"Fortunately for the millions of Americans with disabilities, making accessibility improvements does not cost a lot of money," she said.
The Justice Department also is considering rules requiring more accessible medical equipment in hospitals, nursing homes and clinics. That might include mammography equipment for women who cannot stand up, adjustable exam tables and mechanical lifts.
"We've got the ramps to get into the facilities now, but you can't get the exams," said Judy Panko Reis, a health care access policy analyst at the advocacy group Access Living in Chicago.
Some of the changes are likely to trigger a detailed cost-benefit analysis, which is required when the impact on the economy is likely to surpass $100 million. That figure is likely to be reached for the movie industry if theaters have to install accessible devices for the blind and deaf.
About 1 percent of U.S. theater screens already have that type of equipment. But expanding the technology to others could cost nearly $160 million.
Outfitting one movie theater with both captioning for the deaf and descriptive video devices for the blind costs $4,000 to $6,000, said Larry Goldberg, director of media access at WGBH, Boston's public television station, which holds a patent on a movie-captioning system called Rear Window. (The station pioneered captioning on television. Julia Child's "The French Chef" was the first program to be captioned.)
Many movie studios already are paying for captioning and descriptions for their top movies, Goldberg said.
"Theaters will argue that not every screen should be required to install systems," Goldberg said, but theater owners know changes are on the horizon.
John Fithian of the National Association of Theatre Owners said the organization plans to make comments at Thursday's hearing.
Some 911 systems are updating their systems to accept text messages, but cell phone carriers also must cooperate to make the system work.
James Soukup, emergency communications director for Durham, N.C., said those upgrades will cost $750,000 in Durham alone.
Marca Bristo, president and CEO of Access Living, said bringing the ADA up to date simply means applying it to "the basic activities of life."
"If you were to take these things away from the general population — things like watching a movie, surfing the internet, making a 911 call — there would be an outcry," Bristo said. "All we are asking for is what other people take for granted."
ADA rulemaking: http://ada.gov/anprm2010.htm