At TPGi we are committed to advancing accessibility, and we look for ways to drive innovation and change in the way accessibility is approached and implemented. Laws and policies are strong drivers for accessibility, and in this article we talk about U.S. legislation that addresses accessibility in communication and media products and services. We believe these rules will advance accessibility thinking worldwide, and will result in innovative products and services that are designed to provide an accessible and enjoyable user experience for everyone.
CVAA is short for the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act. It’s a U.S. law that was signed into effect by President Obama in October 2010, for the purpose of ensuring that accessibility requirements keep pace with advances in communication technologies. Title I: Communications Access covers communication services and equipment and Title II: Video Programming covers media accessibility. Both require communication and video manufacturers and service providers to address the needs of people with disabilities in their products and services.
The FCC provides a helpful high-level overview (PDF). For those who want to really dig in, there’s loads of good information in the Final Report and Order (PDF), which includes the final rules as well as discussion of the comments received during the process of drafting the law. This 302-page document gives a good sense of the purpose and intention behind the law, for anyone who has the time and staying power to read it through.
There are two aspects of CVAA that we find especially supportive of accessible user experience. One is the open-endedness of the rules, defining performance objectives but not dictating precisely how manufacturers must achieve them. This leaves the door open for manufacturers to take new approached to accessible interfaces, and for innovation be a market differentiator. Another is the rule that requires manufacturers to consider accessibility early in the design process, and document evidence that they have done so. The inclusion of this requirement as law is a powerful driver for change in how we design and build digital products.
Encouraging Innovation through Flexibility
CVAA does not include a specific standard against which to measure products and services. Instead, CVAA obligates manufacturers and service providers to make their products and services “accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.” And to describe the requirements of that obligation, CVAA uses “performance objectives,” defining accessible, usable, and compatible (see Appendix: CVAA Performance Objectives).
Unlike WCAG and Section 508, which provide precise guidance and specifications related to, for example, providing text alternatives for images, CVAA’s performance objectives are broadly defined, more like the functional requirements in Section 508. They are composed of the objective—“Operable without vision”—and the directive—“Provide at least one mode that does not require user vision.” They do not include specifications for how to meet the objective, such as by providing text alternatives for images.
On the one hand, this makes the task of achieving accessibility more difficult for designers and manufacturers. With standards like WCAG and Section 508, there is clear guidance on how to comply with accessibility requirements. But on the other hand, it leaves room for manufacturers and service providers to devise innovative approaches to achieving performance objectives. In a market as competitive as communication and video products and services, there’s an opportunity for manufacturers and service providers to stand out, by creating innovative products and services that are not only “accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities,” but provide an excellent user experience for everyone.
Requiring Integration of Accessibility in the Design Process
In the CVAA documents, there’s a clear understanding that accessibility cannot be an after-the-fact consideration—that manufacturers will not be able to successfully comply with the law without changing their design and development processes to support accessibility from the start. This prerequisite is part of the rationale behind CVAA’s phased in implementation approach: “We find that phasing in these obligations is appropriate due to the need for covered entities to implement accessibility features early in product development cycles.”
The requirement is supported by several rules. Section 14.20 Obligations, (b) Product design, development, and evaluation, describes the requirements:
(1) Manufacturers and service providers must consider performance objectives set forth in section 14.21 at the design stage as early as possible and must implement such performance objectives, to the extent that they are achievable.
(2) Manufacturers and service providers must identify barriers to accessibility and usability as part of such evaluation.
Later sections describe the requirements for documenting efforts around accessibility. Section 14.31 Recordkeeping, describes how manufacturers are obligated to record their efforts:
(1) information about the manufacturer’s or service provider’s efforts to consult with individuals with disabilities;
(2) descriptions of the accessibility features of its products and services; and
(3) information about the compatibility of its products and services with peripheral devices or specialized customer premise equipment commonly used by individuals with disabilities to achieve access.
The rules go on to explain that the manufacturer or service provider must sign and file an annual compliance certificate containing updates on the above information.
These rules move accessibility from an after-the-fact compliance exercise to a proactive approach that requires that accessibility is integral to the entire process. The record-keeping requirements ensure that the integration effort will be ongoing.
CVAA and Accessible User Experience
At TPGi we know that an integrated practice of accessibility is needed if we are to truly advance access to digital products and services for people with disabilities. We call this practice Accessible User Experience, or Accessible UX. With Accessible UX, accessibility is a requirement from the beginning of the design process, and people with disabilities are included in user research activities. As such, CVAA’s process requirements for including accessibility requirements at the design stage and documenting engagement with people with disabilities map perfectly to an Accessible UX approach. We strongly recommend that communication and video manufacturers and service providers consider adopting an Accessible UX approach to meet their obligations under CVAA.
You can learn more about the origins of CVAA, how it’s being implemented, and what results we can look forward to in the interview, CVAA with Larry Goldberg, conducted by yours truly, from A Podcast for Everyone, sponsored by TPG, Rosenfeld Media, UIE, and O’Reilly.
§ 14.21 Performance Objectives.
(a) Generally – Manufacturers and service providers shall ensure that equipment and services covered by this part are accessible, usable, and compatible as those terms are defined in paragraphs (b) through (d) of this section.
(b) Accessible – The term accessible shall mean that:
(1) Input, control, and mechanical functions shall be locatable, identifiable, and operable in accordance with each of the following, assessed independently:
(i) Operable without vision. Provide at least one mode that does not require user vision.
(ii) Operable with low vision and limited or no hearing. Provide at least one mode that permits operation by users with visual acuity between 20/70 and 20/200, without relying on audio output.
(iii) Operable with little or no color perception. Provide at least one mode that does not require user color perception.
(iv) Operable without hearing. Provide at least one mode that does not require user auditory perception.
(v) Operable with limited manual dexterity. Provide at least one mode that does not require user fine motor control or simultaneous actions.
(vi) Operable with limited reach and strength. Provide at least one mode that is operable with user limited reach and strength.
(vii) Operable with a Prosthetic Device. Controls shall be operable without requiring body contact or close body proximity.
(viii) Operable without time dependent controls. Provide at least one mode that does not require a response time or allows response time to be by passed or adjusted by the user over a wide range.
(ix) Operable without speech. Provide at least one mode that does not require user speech.
(x) Operable with limited cognitive skills. Provide at least one mode that minimizes the cognitive, memory, language, and learning skills required of the user.
(2) All information necessary to operate and use the product, including but not limited to, text, static or dynamic images, icons, labels, sounds, or incidental operating cues, [shall] comply with each of the following, assessed independently:
(i) Availability of visual information. Provide visual information through at least one mode in auditory form.
(ii) Availability of visual information for low vision users. Provide visual information through at least one mode to users with visual acuity between 20/70 and 20/200 without relying on audio.
(iii) Access to moving text. Provide moving text in at least one static presentation mode at the option of the user.
(iv) Availability of auditory information. Provide auditory information through at least one mode in visual form and, where appropriate, in tactile form.
(v) Availability of auditory information for people who are hard of hearing. Provide audio or acoustic information, including any auditory feedback tones that are important for the use of the product, through at least one mode in enhanced auditory fashion (i.e., increased amplification, increased signal to noise ratio, or combination).
(vi) Prevention of visually induced seizures. Visual displays and indicators shall minimize visual flicker that might induce seizures in people with photosensitive epilepsy.
(vii) Availability of audio cutoff. Where a product delivers audio output through an external speaker, provide an industry standard connector for headphones or personal listening devices (e.g., phone like handset or earcup) which cuts off the speaker(s) when used.
(viii) Non interference with hearing technologies. Reduce interference to hearing technologies (including hearing aids, cochlear implants, and assistive listening devices) to the lowest possible level that allows a user to utilize the product.
(ix) Hearing aid coupling. Where a product delivers output by an audio transducer which is normally held up to the ear, provide a means for effective wireless coupling to hearing aids.
(c) Usable: The term usable shall mean that individuals with disabilities have access to the full functionality and documentation for the product, including instructions, product information (including accessible feature information), documentation and technical support functionally equivalent to that provided to individuals without disabilities.
(d) Compatible: The term compatible shall mean compatible with peripheral devices and specialized customer premises equipment, and in compliance with the following provisions, as applicable:
(1) External electronic access to all information and control mechanisms. Information needed for the operation of products (including output, alerts, icons, on-line help, and documentation) shall be available in a standard electronic text format on a cross-industry standard port and all input to and control of a product shall allow for real time operation by electronic text input into a cross-industry standard external port and in cross-industry standard format. The cross-industry standard port shall not require manipulation of a connector by the user.
(2) Connection point for external audio processing devices. Products providing auditory output shall provide the auditory signal at a standard signal level through an industry standard connector.
(3) TTY connectability. Products that provide a function allowing voice communication and which do not themselves provide a TTY functionality shall provide a standard non-acoustic connection point for TTYs. It shall also be possible for the user to easily turn any microphone on and off to allow the user to intermix speech with TTY use.
(4) TTY signal compatibility. Products, including those providing voice communication functionality, shall support use of all cross-manufacturer non-proprietary standard signals used by TTYs.