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This blog post discusses the different methods to meet the Twenty First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) requirements and defines, discusses, and provides examples of nominal cost assistive technology that can be used to meet obligations under the CVAA.

Background on CVAA

The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 focuses on ensuring that communications and media services, content, equipment, emerging technologies, and new modes of transmission are accessible to users with disabilities.  CVAA requirements primarily apply to communications software and equipment manufacturers, video service providers, and producers of video content. The Act requires that all communications and video programming be provided in an accessible manner to individuals with disabilities. It builds on a variety of current pieces of legislation relating to accessibility, including Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act.  The overall requirements of the CVAA require that manufacturers and service providers of communications technology provide technology that is accessible, if achievable.

Methods of Complying with CVAA

There are different methods of making a product accessible, but which method is the most appropriate depends on the type of product and how the product was developed.  For example, hardware solutions may be made accessible by building accessibility features directly into the product or by providing a software interface that communicates with the hardware.  Software or web-based products would likely meet the requirements by directly building accessibility into the products, by implementing an accessibility applications programming interface, by following international standards for accessibility, or by supporting third party nominal cost assistive technology.  The above methods are verified by the product’s functional use by people with disabilities.  The implementation of the CVAA by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) (which is codified into the Code of Federal Regulations) defines functional performance objectives which require the covered technology be accessible to groups of users with different kinds of disabilities.  For example, a product must be accessible to people without vision. Separately, it must also be accessible to people without hearing, to people with limited dexterity, and so forth.

Third-Party Solutions

There is limited need for most software or web-based products to directly build in assistive technologies, such as screen readers.  Most users of assistive technology prefer to have their assistive technologies configured using their own settings and thus prefer to use their choice of assistive technology with a software application or website.  When assistive technology or accessibility is not supported directly in the product or service, manufacturers or service providers must ensure that third party solutions exist and meet the functional performance objectives.  These third party products must be available at nominal cost and must be supported by the manufacturer. This means that any fee that the customer must pay for third party hardware and/or software accessibility solutions should be small enough such that it does not generally factor into the customer’s decision to acquire a product and/or service that they desire.

It is fair to assume that a “nominal cost” would be quite low. As a rough rule of thumb, any third party accessibility solution priced at $100 or less should meet the nominal cost requirement. This benefits people with disabilities, since there are many individuals who are unable to afford certain accessibility solutions available on the market.  Assistive technologies like the no-cost, open source NVDA screen reader for the Windows platform clearly meet the nominal cost threshold, as would a $2 stylus used to access a touch screen device with a prosthetic. There is a dearth of certain types of nominal cost assistive technology on certain platforms.  For example, it is difficult to locate reliable switch control software for Windows that is nominal cost.

Assistive technologies such as the JAWS for Windows screen reader and the Dragon Naturally Speaking Professional speech recognition software would be cost-prohibitive and are unlikely to meet the FCC’s definition of nominal cost. Other costly assistive technologies such as Window-Eyes and System Access are available on payment plans, which muddies the waters as to whether these are considered nominal costs. Certain products such as Serotek’s System Access To Go are not likely to be considered nominal cost, even though they might be free to use, since restrictions present in their license agreements prevent them from being used on an on-going basis or for testing purposes.

There are several assistive technology products that are built into the most popular desktop and mobile operating systems commonly in use today such as the Narrator screen reader, Windows Magnifier, and speech recognition, which are built-in to the Windows 7 and Windows 8 operating systems, and the VoiceOver screen reader and Zoom magnifier, which are built into Apple’s iOS mobile and Mac OS operating systems.  Most of these assistive technologies are fairly feature-rich and provide a reasonable baseline level of accessibility support for users. Certain operating systems (e.g., Switch Control) also provide accessibility features that allow users with mobility impairments to interact with and make use of the system.  Apple recently introduced a built-in Switch Control feature in its latest iOS 7 operating system. This is a feature that the Android platform does not have, although it can be built directly into apps.  Some platforms such as Windows do not have built-in switch control although features such as the Windows on-screen keyboard support switch  like control.

Some products such as software-based keyboards, or peripherals like external keyboards and track pads could be considered nominal cost accessibility solutions, as they help provide alternative methods of inputting text and interacting with user interface elements.

Finally, if accessibility support is not achievable natively or via third party nominal cost assistive technology, then commonly used peripheral devices and technology often used by people with disabilities must be supported, unless non-achievable.  In this situation, technology such as the JAWS for Windows screen reader or non-nominal cost switch control software for Windows can be identified for users to meet CVAA obligations.

The CVAA has two record keeping requirements: to identify and document accessibility features of a product and the support for peripheral devices and technologies commonly used by people with disabilities; and to complete a design approach for how accessibility will be achieved in a product. The latter approach must be developed in consultation with people who have disabilities.  Thus, it is very important to properly identify the accessibility features, third party assistive technologies, and commonly used peripheral devices to ensure that you meet the record keeping obligations and to verify that your product is accessible to people with disabilities.

Below is a link to summaries of the various nominal cost assistive technologies available on different platforms. It covers iOS, Mac OS, Windows, Android, and Chromebook, and also lists other assistive technologies that are commonly used but which are not considered nominal cost.

Validation of the functional use of a system against the functional performance objectives by people with disabilities and the following the guidance on nominal cost assistive technologies mentioned above is likely to provide a defensible basis for meeting the functional performance objectives as defined by the FCC in the Code of Federal Regulations.

 Co-author:  Jonathan Avila, Chief Accessibility Officer