Author’s Note: This article is cross-posted on Brandchannel.

Google just posted a fascinating video of Steve Mahan, who is blind, driving to Taco Bell on his own, using Google’s pioneering self-driving technology. (It is captioned for the deaf, and audio-described for the blind.)

Google points out Mahan drove this car as an experiment on a “carefully programmed route.” Still, it is a brilliant and necessary application of a technology that was developed with the goal of making driving safer for everyone, eliminate traffic jams, and bring people to their destinations without getting lost. Just as the automobile changed the world at the beginning of the 20th century and introduced the so-called automobile culture, self-driving cars will impact how we live our lives in the 21st century.

Today, people who are not able to drive safely on the road – like people with vision loss, people in wheelchairs, or elderly people with age-related physical or cognitive disabilities that make it difficult to operate a car – are limited in their ability to live independently the way the rest of us do. They must rely on alternative technologies or services to achieve the sense of independence and control so they can be less of a burden to their family and friends.

When a car has the capability to take a person anywhere anytime, without operating a steering wheel or pedals, it removes a significant accessibility barrier for those whose disabilities limit their ability to operate a car.

Self-driving cars are going to be a game-changer for everyone, most of all people with disabilities.

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    Author’s Note: This article was originally written for Brandchannel.

    Screenshot from AT&T Relay Service Home PageIn the wake of the 2009 arrests of 26 people for Video Relay Services (VRS) fraud and their resulting convictions, the Federal Communications Commission implemented procedures for stronger oversight of its Telecommunication Relay Services program for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. VRS and IP Relay operators have, in turn, tightened their policies and instituted systems to ensure compliance with FCC directives.

    These directives seem to have failed to reach AT&T. This week, the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against AT&T for improperly billing the FCC for calls made by Nigerian scam artists on AT&T’s IP-Relay service. The lawsuit charges that AT&T failed to follow a 2008 FCC requirement that relay providers register their users and verify their identities, and that up to 95% of AT&T’s call volume since 2009 was originated by fraudulent foreign callers taking advantage of the free calls. The cost of these improper reimbursements: $16 million.

    For two decades, deaf and hard-of-hearing people have benefited from the Federal program for relay services, which enable them to communicate with anyone using a special telephone or videophone, or on their computer. Without these programs, many deaf people would be unable to call their family and friends, or do business over the phone. Even something as mundane as calling the credit card company about a lost credit card would be, at best, an hour-long call.

    The Nigerian relay scam is fairly old news, dating back to 2002 when the IP Relay program was launched. Attracted by the prospect of making free calls to unsuspecting American victims, scammers based in Nigeria took advantage of the IP-relay services to target Americans. Until the FCC instituted procedures in 2008 to block these types of calls, it was difficult for IP relay operators such as AT&T to keep Nigerian scammers out of its network, while simultaneously ensuring that legitimate calls from deaf consumers go through.

    The FCC, since 2008, has required telecommunication providers to register its relay program users and confirm their identities. According to this week’s lawsuit, AT&T set up a registration system that “did not verify whether the user was located within the United States.”

    AT&T’s public response to the lawsuit is notable for the way it preferred to focus on legal issues than on the benefit its program supposedly affords its deaf and hard-of-hearing users:

    AT&T has followed the FCC’s rules for providing IP Relay services for disabled customers and for seeking reimbursement for those services. . . . As the FCC is aware, it is always possible for an individual to misuse IP Relay services, just as someone can misuse the postal system or an email account, but FCC rules require that we complete all calls by customers who identify themselves as disabled.

    Many VRS and IP Relay companies have followed the FCC directives by investing in procedures and systems to prevent the kind of fraud that Viable was charged with in 2009, and which AT&T is apparently being sued for this week. To a large degree, these investments are geared toward winning the hearts and minds of deaf consumers, who want the comfort of knowing they are able to make a phone call anytime, anywhere. When resources are being diverted away from deaf consumers toward servicing others who are not deaf, or who do not identify themselves as deaf, in the name of collecting more revenue, it undermines trust in the system. And when the money collected is from the Federal Government, repercussions inevitably follow.

    By doing lip service to FCC regulations, as AT&T press release implied, rather than going beyond and ensuring that deaf consumers are satisfied with their phone calls, as most other relay service providers are doing, AT&T risks significant damage to its brand.

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      Poster of amputee athlete Oscar Postorius, "Don't Look At The Legs. Look At The Records."For decades, the Paralympics were perceived in popular consciousness as the forgotten cousin of the Olympics, held in the afterglow of the main event, after the tourists, TV cameras, and journalists have left. Yet if recent trends are any indication, the Paralympics could soon share the same pedestal as the Olympics. Granted, it is more rumor than reality, but not out of the realm of possibility.

      With technological advances that give athletes with disabilities more tools to stay fit and become ultra-competitive in the sporting world, and the increased recognition of the incredible resources and energies that Paralympic athletes put into their work purely because of their love of sport (Oscar Pistorius, Aimee Mullins, and Jonas Jacobsson are some examples), the Paralympic Games are beginning to attain the status of star attraction. This has strong implications for marketing to people with disabilities: these athletes make for compelling TV viewing, redefining the way the disability market is portrayed among marketers and advertising agencies.

      This year, the Paralympics in London will be held from August 29 to September 9, after the Olympics, in the same sporting venues. The head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, will open both the Olympics and the Paralympics. Given the significance of 2012 in the Queen’s reign, with the Diamond Jubilee festivities celebrating her 60th anniversary on the British throne, and the Olympics following one month later, it is a credit to the Queen to honor the Paralympics on the same level as the two other state occasions on her schedule.

      In fact, the official London 2012 website has information about both the Olympics and Paralympics, with web accessibility features incorporated into the layout for those with disabilities who have difficulty navigating the website.

      Most provocatively, there is talk afoot about merging the Paralympics with the Olympics. While the structure of a merged Olympics-Paralympics arrangement is not clear (most likely, the Paralympic events would be hosted in the same venues as Olympic events, on the Olympic schedule), this would be a recognition of the athleticism and passion of the Paralympians.

      As expected, there is skepticism on whether this arrangement would work, as a BBC World Service poll, published today, shows. The poll results portray an interesting pattern: respondents in countries with higher gold-medal hauls were generally less supportive of an Olympics-Paralympics merger than respondents in countries with fewer gold medals. Even Britain’s most successful Paralympian, Baroness Tanni Gray Thompson, is opposed to the idea, fearing that the Paralympics would “disappear off the face of the earth.”

      My response to the possibility of an Olympics-Paralympics merger is, “Why not?” Yes, it means more athletes filling the stadiums and the Olympic Village, resulting in more outlays and more infrastructure. Yet, think of the possibilities a merged event would create: more accessible design features in the Village, across all the sporting venues, and on the Web. This elevates the business case for accessibility since these features can be reused and/or copied elsewhere, providing access to up to 25% of the population who would otherwise be denied access both physically and economically.

      The Olympic motto is “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” Athletes with disabilities strive for this motto, just as able-bodied athletes do. They deserve this level of recognition on the same stage, under the same bright lights, in front of the same crowds, as able-bodied Olympians do. This recognition can rewrite the cultural view of people with disabilities, by eliminating negative perceptions of this significant segment of the world’s population, and effectively increasing the segment’s economic potential.

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        Logo of the Jewish Deaf Resource Center, showing three different-colored stripes flowing over "JDRC"My article about Jewish law barring those “who cannot hear” from having the full rights of a Jew has been published in the Jewish Deaf Resource Center’s blog.

        The Jewish Deaf Resource Center (JDRC) builds bridges between Jews who are deaf and hard-of-hearing and the individuals and organizations serving the Jewish community
        throughout North America.

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          Netflix Logo with closed caption that says "Closed Captioning Not Available"

          Photo courtesy of westlawinsider.com

          On Wednesday, Netflix put out an announcement on its blog that it has “reached its captioning goal for 2011, when more than 80% of the hours streamed in the US were of content with captions or subtitles available.” This, according to Netflix, was up from 40% in June and 60% in September.

          Nice number. Wrong metric.

          With its Qwikster fiasco, and its clumsy attempts at increasing its pricing plans, Netflix has demonstrated a consistently ham-handed approach to its sizable home-viewing market. In that context, its announcement of the 80% captioning goal is a perfect example of how Netflix says one thing while its target market says another thing.

          If you read Netflix’s announcement closely, it says captions are available on 80% of the hours streamed to its audience. Not whether captions are available on a movie. Or whether people actually watch captions.

          So if you watch a very popular movie several times through video streaming, and it happens to have captions, then the total number of minutes viewed all count toward the 80% goal. But view a movie that does not have captions, and it does not count. In other words, Netflix’s metric is skewed toward popular movies, which typically include new releases.

          The metric the deaf and hard-of-hearing community is looking for: how many instant-watch movies and shows have captions. In this case, the number is 50%.

          In the first comment below the blog announcement, Mike Chapman – who, along with Phlixie and FeedFliks, maintains a list of captioned Netflix instant-watch movies on his site – pointed out this discrepancy. He headlined his comment with “Netflix Lies!” and scolded Netflix for its attempts to mislead deaf consumers.

          Netflix’s reply to Chapman’s post was telling in its tone-deafness to the deaf community:

          The 80% is based on the content that people actually watch, and my specific language is precise and correct: “more than 80% of the hours streamed in the US were of content with captions or subtitles available” because we have focused our effort on the content that gets a lot of viewing.

          So, Netflix focuses its effort “on the content that gets a lot of viewing”!

          This comment is rich in contradiction. A major element of the home-viewing experience is the ability to pick any movie you want, and view it anytime in the comfort of your own home. Netflix grew by leaps and bounds for years on its ridiculously simple business model: pay a cheap monthly subscription, and we’ll mail you a DVD and you keep it as long as you like. Netflix’s key value proposition bears repeating: pick any movie you want, and view it anytime. Not “content that gets a lot of viewing.”

          Netflix was long aware of the encroaching threat of instant video streaming, and to its credit, made proactive efforts to counter this threat by setting up its own instant-streaming business. Yet while its strategy was there, its execution was not. As a result, as Netflix alienated its viewers with its Qwikster fiasco and its unpopular pricing increases, other video content providers such as Hulu, Amazon, and iTunes invaded Netflix’s pioneering value proposition: pick a movie anytime, and view it anywhere for as long as you like. In mid-2011, Netflix’s stock sailed to nearly $300. Within 4 months, which included the Qwikster fiasco, it fell to $64 and is now treading water at the $100 mark.

          Deaf viewers want the comfort of knowing that the movies they picked – whether it is this year’s popular drama “The Descendants” or a rarely viewed Western movie from 1952 – have captions. It is a major inconvenience when you click “Play,” wait a few minutes while the credits roll, and then the dialogue starts, only to find out there are no captions.

          Netflix now provides viewers the ability to search for movies with captions. Yet this feature does not assuage the deaf community’s desire for equal access to the movie database. Hearing viewers can pick any movie from the movie database, because they can understand the dialogue. Deaf viewers do not have that luxury.

          So why should deaf viewers care if 80% of streamed minutes have captioning available? They do not measure caption availability by that metric. All they want to know is, “Is THIS movie captioned?” Period.

          The most useful metric, in this case, is the number of movies and shows in Netflix’s catalog with captions. According to Mike Chapman, that number is 52%. If foreign movies – which typically have subtitles – are not included, this number drops to 46%.

          Gabe Gagliano, a Tech of the Hub blogger, put it succinctly:

          Netflix appears to subscribe to the 80-20 rule or the Pareto principle. The 80-20 rule serves businesses well most of the time. As a way to prioritize which titles to caption, focus on the most popular titles. However, judging success on accessibility shouldn’t be measured by the 80-20 rule. Accessibility needs to be 100%. While 80% of the hours streamed is a significant milestone, it’s not mission accomplished. On top of that, the long tail of content is one of Netflix’s differentiators. Ironically enough, looking at the numbers by the “hours streamed” metric is biased on some level. Some titles were watched less often since they weren’t captioned to begin with.

          Rule of thumb: make sure that the metric you are pursuing is what the target market measures you by. Deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers care that they should have access to any movie they want to see. The most appropriate metric is how many movies in your database are captioned.

          This is yet another example of Netflix’s continuing inability to listen to its customers. Netflix is being sued by the National Association of the Deaf for failing to provide adequate captioning for its deaf and hard-of-hearing consumers on the instant-streaming plan. With DVDs – which typically have captions available – fading from the popular consciousness, captions have to be provided on the instant-streaming equivalents, but that requires entering the captions all over again for technical reasons. When Netflix introduced its instant-streaming-only plan at a reduced price, and raised the prices on all its DVD plans by one dollar, there was fury in the deaf community over the fact that they would be forced to choose a more expensive DVD plan because of the need to view captions. Activists likened the price increases to a “deaf tax,” a powerful term that had resonance in the deaf community.

          Netflix’s prior communications with its deaf market on these topics were sparse, and when they did announce their progress on captioning, delivered very little information that was of use to deaf viewers.

          In the same blog post announcing its achievement of the 80% goal, Netflix goes on to say:

          Our goal is to provide more and more content with captions; however, viewers should expect the gap on the last 20% to narrow more slowly than in 2011, since it includes a large number of titles that are rarely watched, so each hour of captioning added adds less and less to the overall metric.

          This is a convoluted way of saying “only 50% of our instant-watch catalog is captioned.”

          The more appropriate blog post by Netflix would have been, “We have hit the 50% mark in the number of instant-watch movies with captions. While this is a milestone in itself, we have much to do to ensure that the last 50% is captioned. We welcome input and feedback from the deaf community as we work hard toward meeting the 100% goal in our Watch Instantly catalog. We do not care if that is mandated by law. We care that you, the deaf community, have access to any movie you want to see.”

          That would have resonated better with the deaf community. Unfortunately, until this is achieved, Netflix is going to face roadblocks not only from its deeply distrustful deaf viewers, but also from the rest of us who have been shortchanged by Netflix’s price increases, its missteps on Qwikster, and its ham-fisted attempts to head off competition in the instant-watch space.

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            Another reason captioning adds value beyond the deaf and hard-of-hearing market it was intended for: YouTube has announced new and improved capabilities for its captions. In addition to new formats and languages, caption text is now searchable. Type “Frankly my dear, cc” in the YouTube search bar (“cc” filters the search) and see what you come up with!

            As I wrote last year, searching for specific movies, TV shows, and other videos is more efficient when caption searchability is included. It takes search to a whole new level, beyond text and images – another feather in the cap for search king Google.

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              Meryl Streep on the stage accepting her 2012 OscarJohn Anderson asked this rhetorical question today on CNN.com, “Are the Oscars stuck in the past?” The New York Times headlined its Oscar review, “Even the Jokes Have Wrinkles.” Is it because the Oscars were not forward-thinking, as Anderson suggested, or that Hollywood is merely responding to a trend that is already evident in political discourse: the growing impact of the baby boomer generation as it gets older?

              Perhaps it would be more relevant to ask the largest segment of the U.S. population – the baby boomers – what they thought of last night’s Oscars. Last year, the Hollywood Reporter quoted CBS’ chief research officer in its article on shows for baby boomers: “The fact is an affluent 58-year-old is certainly more valuable than a 22-year-old who is just getting by.” Even the New York Times wrote last week about how graying baby boomers are influencing the way Hollywood and the movie theater chains deliver the movie experience.

              CNN’s Anderson did not do the country’s largest market segment any favors when he wrote, “Why would the show’s writers and producers characterize the idea of going to the movies as something quaint, nostalgic and on the way out? Time and again, participants reflected on moviegoing as something they remembered fondly from their childhoods. They might have been talking about the Civil War.”

              I am not a baby boomer, but as a consultant who is aware of the economic pull of the baby boomer market, I thought the Oscars were fun to watch. Anderson should talk to a Hollywood marketing research expert.

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                In the past decade, there was substantial progress in the U.S. to ensure that automated teller machines (ATMs) were more accessible to blind and low-vision banking customers. Yet, even today, the task of withdrawing money from an ATM remains a challenge for these customers, especially those with more severe forms of blindness.

                The Blind Film Critic – best known for his critiques of popular movies from his perspective – demonstrates in a video how he withdraws $400 from a Bank of America ATM. Captions are included.

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                  Lee Ridley of Newcastle upon Tyne, England, has cerebral palsy and lost his voice at an early age. As the video below shows, he actually uses a computer voice to play comedy on stage, using an iPad text-to-speech program.

                  Cleverly done, and he delivered plenty of laughs.

                  (Captions are on for the iPad-impaired.)

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                    Legless Fashionistas

                    February 23, 2012

                    A woman with one leg, wearing an Össur prosthetic blade fitted with a Nike sole.This isn’t about high fashion. It’s about athletes with missing legs, and how they keep fit and active with well-designed prosthetic legs and sneakers made by Nike and a leading prosthetics company, Össur. BBC News posted a story about Nike’s commitment to developing running soles for Össur’s prosthetic legs that can stand up to the rigors of running. Taken together, Nike and Össur’s products merge into a beautiful, clean design that also makes a fashion statement.

                    The most compelling passage in BBC’s article:

                    For the sportswear companies, there is also the attraction of a big and growing market, and possibly a positive image from being seen to “help” the disabled community.

                    “We’re the largest visible minority consumer group in North America,” says Kimberley Barreda, an adventure sports enthusiast and double above-knee amputee from Montana.

                    “We spend $770bn a year.

                    “I wish companies would turn down the glow of the self-manufactured halo and just admit they have discovered a ridiculously huge untapped market, and they would love a piece of it.”

                    A different article, from Smart Planet, delves into further detail about Nike’s sole and Össur’s prosthetic.

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