If you work in media broadcasting or telecommunications you have probably heard of the U.S. legislation called CVAA, shorthand for the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act. This law, signed by President Obama in October 2010, seeks to ensure that accessibility requirements keep pace with advances in communication technologies.
Like most legal documents, CVAA is difficult to decipher. It’s difficult to extract the key points and determine what actions we need to take.
Lucky for us, Larry Goldberg is here to help. Larry was co-chair of the Video Programming Accessibility Advisory Committee (VPAAC), which provided reports that helped shape the legislation. He joins Sarah Horton for this episode of A Podcast for Everyone to answer key questions, including:
- How did CVAA get started and what is it for?
- What do web professionals need to know about CVAA?
- Are there standards we should be looking to for guidance on CVAA compliance?
Larry Goldberg is Director of Community Engagement at WGBH, the company that pioneered captioned television in 1972. He has been with WGBH since 1985, for many years of which as Director of the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family National Center for Accessible Media, and has been a leader in advancing accessible media at WGBH and worldwide.
Resources mentioned in this podcast
- Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act – FCC Encyclopedia
- The Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) at WGBH
Sarah Horton: Hi, I’m Sarah Horton, and I’m coauthor with Whitney Quesenbery of “A Web For Everyone,” from Rosenfeld Media. I’m here today with Larry Goldberg, who is Director of Community Engagement at WGBH, the company that pioneered captioned television in 1972.
Larry has been at WGBH since 1985, and has been a leader in advancing accessible media at WGBH and worldwide. We’re here to learn from Larry about the 21st Century Video Accessibility Act or CVAA.
Larry was closely involved in getting this legislation passed and we would like to know more about what it is, and how it affects people who make websites and applications.
Hi, Larry, thanks so much for joining us.
Larry Goldberg: Great to join you Sarah.
Sarah: Can you tell us briefly about the origins of CVAA, how it got started, what problems it was meant to address?
Larry: CVAA came out of a roadblock that the blind community was facing back in the early 2000s. We had found ways to achieve requirements for closed captioning of television for the deaf community, but the blind community wanted to see more video description.
The Telecommunications Act that was passed in 1996, where captioning was required, video description was left somewhat open, but the FCC at that time decided they had a mandate to require video description, limited amount, only on certain channels.
They went ahead and recorded it, but the communications industry took the FCC to court and won. The video description mandate was overturned, and the only solution was to go back to Congress, and try to get a new law passed that would actually give the FCC jurisdiction to require video description.
At the same time, many others in the disability community were concerned that digital technology was changing everything, that there were new forms of media coming out, new ways of using telephony, that weren’t really covered by existing laws and regulations, so a combination of these pressures came together to craft a new law that became the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act.
Sarah: Sounds like quite a journey. Our audience is mainly people who make websites and apps, sort of strategy people, designers, people who code, people responsible for content. What do they need to know about CVAA in order to do their work?
Larry: Well, there are two basic sections of the CVAA. Title One covers mostly telephony, including smart phones and mobile devices used for advanced communication services, and Title Two focuses on online media and Internet communication.
For anyone who is developing mobile technology in tablets or smartphones where one can surf the web, receive email, get text messages, all of that must be made accessible now. By being made accessible, we traditionally are focusing on the needs of people who are blind or visually impaired.
The user-interface needs to be navigable by audio and the content needs to be accessible, usually by transforming it into speech or into braille tactile versions. So, from the beginning of the design on a mobile device, it is now required that mobile browsers have to be usable by people who can’t see.
The other advanced communication services, you need to be able to email on a mobile device, if you can’t see, text services, and various other related activities on both, mobile devices and really any kind of new digital technology that’s giving you access to these kinds of what’s called “ACS,” advanced communication services.
Title Two is a very interesting different area, and that is where the requirement for video description on television came into play. There are now nine channels, the major four broadcast channels and five top cable channels now have to provide 50 hours per quarter of video description on their TV channels.
On the Internet, closed captioning that has existed in broadcast, if it’s now carried on the Internet, needs to retain those captions. It’s important to note that, that means the video players need to be able to support display of captions, but it’s also important to note that this only covers previously captioned material that has been aired on television.
It is not user generated content, it is not the entire world of YouTube, it really is those channels that are carrying previously broadcast content.
Sarah: What is the status of all of this at this point in time?
Larry: Well, the bill was signed into law in 2010, and immediately the FCC got to work issuing a long series of proposed rulemakings, law comment periods went into effect and then the laws began to take effect as well.
Captioning is now required on the Internet under those parameters. Video description is required on TV. Smart phones presently have to be accessible, and the next round of accessibility is a really fascinating one. It is the world of over-the-top devices, set-top boxes for cable systems, smart TVs will soon, in two years, have to be navigable by persons who can’t see.
I know many companies are working quite hard right now to make their user interface designs accessible without vision.
Sarah: Those are like the menu systems and things like that?
Larry: The menus, the programming grid, basically command and control.
Sarah: I see.
Larry: What’s interesting is that some companies are actually providing voice command of these user interfaces. That’s not required, but it’s a nice combination of audio feedback and voice input. You’ll begin seeing some of that come out in technologies that exist.
In fact, there’s already navigable user interfaces on an Apple TV box. It has built-in VoiceOver, which is the screen reader software. You can navigate, turn on captions or subtitles on programming you’re watching from iTunes on an Apple TV.
Sarah: This sounds like another of those advances for accessibility that everyone’s going to enjoy.
Larry: I think it’s going to be a great time, I think engineers, people who are developers, who read your book could have a lot of fun with this because it’s a whole new way of thinking about good user interface design. The notion that the mouse, the keyboard, and the display monitor, we’ve been stuck with that for a long time now.
For many years, people have been thinking that there must be a new paradigm. This need of this particular community is really now driving it. What’s interesting is the law and the FCC are not mandating a particular way to make your user interface accessible.
It’s really up to you. We’re going to see all kinds of ways of controlling your online experience, and already there are many apps that can control a set-top box, and the apps are accessible.
You can download the AT&T U-verse app, the Verizon FiOS app, or the Comcast app and use your smart phone to control your TV by voice and in an accessible app. In many ways, the emergence of small devices and this need for making accessible user interfaces are coming together right at the right time.
Sarah: Sounds like it. If I’m someone building one of these apps that’s running on one of these devices and I need to comply with CVAA, how do I make sure that I’m complaint? Is there a standard that I can measure against?
Larry: There are functional requirements and there are best practices that have been derived from the world of computer-based software and accessibility. We’ve built a lot on the basis of the work the W3C has done with their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, their User Agent Guidelines.
You should find all of that at w3c.org, but we also have the federal regulation, Section 508, and many of those will give you the basic equivalents or requirements on the functionality. There is not an explicit standard for a smart device to be accessible via audio.
There’s no ISO standard for instance, but there are significant amounts of existing technologies and the functional requirements are fairly clear.
Sarah: One thing that is really helpful for developers, designers, and content people who are trying to build websites and applications for accessibility is having those guidelines to measure against. It’s just a very straightforward way to try to meet accessibility requirements.
You’ve mentioned that there are guidelines that are good as companions, but will there ever be a standard in place that would be used by CVAA to test for compliance, something like WCAG or 508.
Larry: The way the CVAA was written and negotiated really shaped how the technology will roll out and how compliance will roll out. It’s very much a bill that was negotiated by industry with consumers. Both sides won some aspects, some lost. It was the telephone industry and the TV industry that was subject to these requirements.
They argue pretty strongly that they did not want to have the FCC mandate a particular standard or a particular way of achieving accessibility, especially when they were talking about things like smart TVs that were rolling out when the law was written.
They didn’t really exist then, or smart phones and the kind of capabilities, so there was a real hesitation to have the law or the FCC explicitly name a particular standard.
They will make reference to the functional equivalence. They will make reference to the kind of things that you will see in the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative or Section 508, but the law really said that manufacturers have the leeway to develop their accessibility according to their own best attempts at achieving the end goal of making their technology accessible.
If any of the industry standards groups gets together and creates a voluntary standard to achieve, for instance, a talking electronic program guide, they could do that, but it’s actually an area where these companies compete with each other. They compete very strongly on who’s got the best EPG.
In some ways, this is a competitive issue. At this point it’s unlikely that you will see an explicit standard for how to command and control a TV set or a cable box. As I mentioned before, some cable companies might want to proliferate small devices with apps on them, and not build speech into their set-top box, but actually have it external, they’re allowed to do that.
The industry was very clear that the technology is emerging and changing, and they weren’t prepared to have a standard imposed on them, which tends to be the way they go.
There will be industry groups that, for reasons of interoperability, for reasons of consumer friendliness, might get together and say, “Let’s all follow this one particular route to accessibility,” but most of the time, it is pretty much every device will have its own way of achieving these requirements.
Sarah: That’s interesting. It sounds like an opportunity and a challenge at the same time, but there are the performance objectives. Can you talk a bit about those, what those are, and how those play a part?
Larry: Yes, they’re different for whichever portion of the law we’re talking about. For instance, we’ve talked about a mobile device, a tablet or a phone.
The functional equivalent is basically usable without sight, so you start off with the notion that, if you’ve got a touchscreen or you’ve got soft buttons, they need to be programmed so that they can be discovered and used by a person who can’t see your device. It really starts there.
How you navigate to those controls again will be a usability test as much as an accessibility. The notion of usable accessibility is an important aspect because there are devices, particularly in the Android world and some of the other platforms where, yes, you can make them accessible to a blind person.
They can do it, but it would be quite a struggle, with special software that has to be downloaded, special configuration you have to do, and that’s not necessarily the best way to do it. The built-in inherent accessibility at startup, as set up, is really the way to go.
From the box, you open it up, you start it up, it should present you with a talking user interface right away, it starts there, and then all the set up and all the way of setting up your device.
That could be done on a website and then transferred to your device, that would be fine. A very accessible website, which is perhaps a common practice today, could certainly be a way of setting up a new device, but that’s where the frustration begins.
The kind of things, you need to be able to move from one screen to another, you need to be able to enter characters, you need to have those characters echoed back to you, you need to be able to switch between modes, caller ID needs to be audible, your battery level needs to be audible.
All of those aspects that you might take for granted if you’re sighted are things that need to be spoken out loud, and hopefully, presented to the user in a way that is readily achievable.
That’s really the challenge for a good designer, to really come up with ways that make it easy, with gestures, with buttons, hard buttons, soft buttons, that really lead the person to a comfortable way of navigating.
I don’t know that anyone’s come up with that best way yet. Of course, we all look to Apple, how they’ve done with the iPhone VoiceOver. There may be better ways they do it and others will.
Sarah: It seems like this is a good point to talk about one of the things that I like about CVAA, which is this notion about considering performances objectives early in the design process that’s written into some of those lengthy tomes that I have dug my way through. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that.
What I understand is that one of the requirements for CVAA is this notion that you would be considering those performance objectives of, How is this product usable without sight, right at the beginning of the process versus at the end of the process, looking at something you’ve built and saying, “OK, how do I make this usable without sight?”
I think that’s a brilliant inclusion. I would love to hear about how that got there.
Larry: You would think that that is common sense. It is less expensive to build it in from beginning, very difficult to retrofit a product when it’s about to go out the door. It is quite a groundbreaking aspect of the CVAA, where they not only require that companies take into account the accessibility of their devices, their software, their hardware at the design phase, and certify that they’re doing that.
They have to take into account the opinions and expertise of the consumer community. It’s required, and must be certified, that you have reached out to the disability community early in your design process to get their input.
I’m not a lawyer or a legislator, but I don’t know of other legislation that has required what you and I might consider pure common sense. Of course, you ask your users how their technology is working, but as we’re into the law, a document must be signed off by the responsible party annually to show that you have considered accessibility in your design and you have reached out to the user community and experts in the field, so pretty impressive.
Sarah: I love that part. Getting people to think about accessibility right from the start is a big part of the book, A Web For Everyone, we recognize that it’s a real challenge for many organizations to actually make that change because it is a change in a lot of cases.
Do you see any opportunities coming out of CVAA that might help make a case for that kind of change, so that people move from being reactive to proactive about accessibility?
Larry: For those of us who have been in this field for many years, toiling and trying to raise awareness, and convince people that it’s the right thing to do. We’re beginning to actually see a change in the mindset, a heightened awareness, from many of the major companies.
Perhaps some of the smaller companies, some of the smaller app developers are still a bit confused about what they’re supposed to do, but I have seen the pervasiveness among the major carriers of equipment, the hardware and software manufacturers, that they need to follow these.
They’ve hired staff, they’ve reached out to consultants, and organizations that are experts in this. There’s now even an International Association of Accessibility Professionals being formed, and we’ll see how that goes.
To really professionalize the standard, the way privacy originally emerged, and security, which today is a key function for anyone dealing with technology. You would absolutely put a lot of resources into ensuring privacy of your technology and security.
Accessibility will eventually match that as well and that you would never consider putting out a product where you haven’t at least considered the question, as how accessible this is to people with varying disabilities.
My hope is and a lot of professionals in the field have seen that what has been a growing grassroots movement might finally become embedded in common practice.
Sarah: In terms of looking forward, what do we have to look forward to about media accessibility in general?
Larry: Well, we’ve had a great sea change in the world of deliverable media. We’re no longer watching our TVs though the latest high-def TV sets are pretty astounding.
Captioning is pretty pervasive there, works in significant number of cases, almost 100 percent of television is now captioned with rare exceptions. Now we’re watching television and videos on our devices, and the new law actually carries a lot of captions over to those devices, and it’s working remarkably well.
You could take your tablet, your iPhone, your iPad, your Android tablet and download the Hulu, the Netflix, the iTunes apps, and captions will work beautifully, very visible, where there’s a requirement now where the user can adjust the size, the font, the color. It works well.
That has been one of the greatest successes since the initiation of the CVAA. I have to say that WGBH’s National Center for Accessible Media created this thing called the “Internet Captioning Forum” ten years ago, with the participation of AOL, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft.
This is what we’re working towards, it’s working, so we’re proud of that.
Video description available, 450 hours per quarter of video description on television. We are still encountering a lot of problems with delivery of description, getting it from broadcast to the cable outlet to your TV set due to some legacy standards in technology. It’s great to see the pervasiveness of description on commercial and public television too.
I think the new challenges are getting that description onto the web. There is no description on any of the streaming media sites. You won’t find it yet though we hear that some initial inquiries that have begun. It’s not required under the CVAA, but I know a lot of people who are blind and visually impaired have really been pushing hard for description online.
After that it will be a question of what’s next in the media. Will you be looking at other kinds of devices, Google Glass, there’s no reason why that couldn’t be an accessible and usable device for people with disabilities and to display enhancements of media, captions, descriptions, other languages through those devices.
The whole world of second and third screens will be a very interesting way of delivering captions and descriptions to personal viewing experience. You’re gathered with your family, you’re all watching TV. In my family, my wife and child do not like captions. I need captions, and of course, it’s my living.
What about turning the captions on on my iPhone. I’ll watch them privately and everyone else will watch the uncaptioned version. That is actually quite doable today. No one’s implemented it yet. Give me a call anyone who wants to try it, same thing for description.
It’s already been done in movie theaters with private viewing devices and there’s no reason it couldn’t be done on digital television. Of course, the web gives you full control over your own personal experience.
The concept is personalized video, shape it to the way you like it, to the way it works for you, including even pausing to explain what’s going on if you have a cognitive disability. All those are quite doable today with the web architecture we have and the way media is being served up.
Sarah: That sounds really great. Thank you so much Larry. This has been Larry Goldberg talking to us about CVAA and what it means to you and me, as we work toward building a web for everyone.
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Until next time…