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Accessible Products and Services Panel

By Cheryl Heppner, 6/14/11

On Thursday afternoon, June 2, 2011, I moderated a panel “Building the Future with Accessible Products and Services” at the conference. My industry panelists were Toni Acton, Director in the Federal Regulatory Group at AT&T, Jenny Buechner, Product Development/Project Manager at Hamilton Relay, and Mike Ellis, National Director of Sprint Relay. They were joined by consumer panelist Dr. David Coco, who works as an Outreach Specialist at the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin.

We had a bit of a challenge when we discovered our room was set up for a sole speaker instead of a panel, but the Hyatt Regency staff remedied that with amazing speed, and Peter Reeb of National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) was our tech support hero, hustling to take care of our need for multiple microphones and a projector for the slide show.

Updates from Industry Panelists

Toni Acton introduced the audience to AT&T’s new VL5, a free app which allows video calls to others whose computers have VL5 software or have videophones and other 10-digit phone numbers. Built-in features include access to video messages, the ability to participate in 3-way calls, send instant messages, and search with Yellow Pages. If you dial a voice phone number on VL5, you will automatically be connected with one of AT&T Relay’s sign language interpreters. The VL5 is available for both Mac, PC, iPhone 4, and iPad 2 users. See more information and photos.

Mike Ellis talked about the new HTC Evo 4G, Samsung Epic 4G, and Samsung Galaxy Tab, as well as Sprint’s mission to provide the highest quality wireless service to customers. He provided information about Sprint’s video customer service for wireless products at Customer service hours are 9 am to 9 pm CST, Video Relay Service customers have a choice of reaching customer service by voice call, TTY, video phone, fax and email from 4 am to 10 pm PST on weekdays and 7 am to 7 pm on weekends. For information about Sprint’s relay data plan head to its website “Information for Customers Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing”.

Jenny Buechner talked about Hamilton’s support for “traditional relay services” and CapTel service for 17 states plus D.C. Hamilton also supports Internet-based relay services through its Instant Relay and Web Relay as well as multiple choices of Internet-based CapTel services via the 800i Captioned Telephone, Web CapTel, and Mobile CapTel on Android phones, iPhone and BlackBerry. A new service is Mobile Captions Service with Voice Carry Over (VCO). Learn more about them   

A Consumer’s Perspective

Panelist David Coco noted that the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) will allow deaf and hard of hearing consumers fuller access to videos on news, entertainment and sports sites and on mobile phones. He expressed concern that the complexity of the CVAA makes it a challenge for most consumers to understand, particularly because some of the terms in the CVAA are still being defined.

David pointed out that most consumers do not fully understand that web video without captions can be the result of many different factors such as producer, distributor, software player, hardware device, etc. Each of these factors is usually controlled by a different entity. Figuring out the source of the problem is far beyond the ability of most consumers, so there is a great need for a simple way to report problems and get them resolved.

He also supported accessibility built into all mainstream products, and software applications that can turn mainstream devices into accessible devices. And finally he addressed the need for clear information about who to call with a complaint and improvements in customer service for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

From the Audience

The floor was opened for attendees to ask questions or make comments. Norman Williams of Gallaudet University expressed concern that consumers are experiencing more missed calls with their mobile phones and questioned whether the new, thinner phones can be made to deliver a stronger vibration to alert consumers to calls. There is a possibility that Bluetooth phones may be stronger at this kind of signaling. Mike Ellis mentioned that one solution could be a wrist-worn vibrator.

Another request was for all wireless phones to add to their menu the ability to select a connection to disability-related customer service.

Norman also noted that many accessibility features on wireless devices are now becoming available through software apps. He asked whether this will mean that people with disabilities will end up paying to get the accessibility features they need as opposed to having them built in as an expected feature in all devices.

A consumer who has hearing aids reported having issues with sound fidelity of mobile phones. Toni Acton said that AT&T encourages customers to try different phones and most of them can be tested for up to 30 days. Mike Ellis added that the quality of the hearing aid itself is also a factor.

David Coco praised organizations such as TDI, NAD, and HLAA for taking on more responsibility to educate consumers about technology and important accessibility issues. He recommended that TDI establish a hub where consumers can get all kind of information about access with mobile devices “instead of having to go to 20 different websites.”

Plans for this kind of website are already underway, Toni Acton said. About a year ago the CTIA (Consumer Telecommunications Industry Association) informed the Federal Communications Commission that they planned to set up a clearinghouse of information on mobile phones. I checked this site out and it is terrific. I hope they keep it updated to show features of all the products currently on the market. See it at the specific page for people who are deaf or hard of hearing .