FCC passes deaf-blind tech program extension

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The Federal Communications Commission passed two measures Thursday to improve the way people with disabilities experience technology.

The commission approved an order making the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program permanent. Better known as iCanConnect, the program had been operating under pilot programs that provide technology to people with significant combined hearing and vision loss.

The nationwide program will retain much of its current structure through the permanent order. However, it creates a window during which current programs can reapply for funds and new programs can apply for certification, as well as a database for programs to track what funds will be available.

The program’s capability was put on display during the commission meeting when a guest sent FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler an email from a device he was given through the iCanConnect program.

“Through enlightenment and technological advances, we are slowly but surely breaking down barriers to enable more seamless means to communicate and engage,” FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said. “Closing the affordability gap and providing life-change equipment that allows deaf-blind individuals to communicate is something we should all be proud to support.”

The FCC also adopted rules that require a secondary audio stream that would make emergency information accessible to visually impaired people. The stream can be accessed on tablets, laptops, smartphones or any other devices where television providers provide programming. The rule also calls for equipment, such as set-top boxes, to provide an easy way for visually impaired people to access the secondary audio.

“By extending our emergency information rules to second screens, we’ll not only ensure fairness for blind Americans but also provide a few extra seconds of warning in a time when seconds count,” Wheeler said.

The chairman called both orders a “simple matter of equal rights to access information, including the information to be safe.”

“These may not be headline-grabbing activities, but they are important activities, and they are activities that this agency has a serious responsibility to make sure that it’s dealing with,” he said.

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Agencies, Federal Communications Commission
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