July 23, 2010 / 10:10 PM / in 7 years

U.S. looks to improve disabled access to Internet

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Friday proposed trying to enhance access for people with disabilities to websites for hotels, retail stores and other public sites as well as improve access to movie theaters.

Most of the proposals are aimed primarily at improved access for the deaf and the blind.

With the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act on Monday, the Justice Department issued four proposals for public comment aimed at finding ways to keep up with advancing technologies so people with disabilities are not left behind.

“Just as these quantum leaps can help all of us, they can also set us back -- if regulations are not updated or compliance codes become too confusing to implement,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.

However, the proposals could draw criticism from the business community, which already has a rocky relationship with the Obama administration over issues including new regulations on the financial industry.

One key proposal focused on improving access for people with disabilities to websites of state and local governments as well as those sites of private businesses like restaurants, hotels and other commercial outlets.

Noting that the Internet has evolved substantially since the 1990 law went into effect, the department asked for comment on what resources are available to help those with disabilities access existing websites as well as what the costs would be for making them accessible.

COST AN ISSUE FOR BUSINESS

“We’re generally supportive of the Americans with Disabilities Act but we need to come up with a reasonable way to provide these services,” said Randy Johnson, a senior vice president for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and worked on the 1990 law while a congressional staff member.

“It’s a matter of concern, but we’re going to work with them on it,” he said.

The Justice Department noted that the federal government has encouraged self regulation of the Internet, but said that in this case there was a potential need to intervene to improve access for those with disabilities.

“It is clear that the system of voluntary compliance has proved inadequate in providing website accessibility to individuals with disabilities,” the proposal said.

The Justice Department set a six-month comment period and said it planned to hold a public hearing on the subject.

The department said it was also considering requiring movie theaters to show movies with closed captions and video descriptions at least 50 percent of the time and sought comments on the benefits and potential costs.

That could have a big impact on national chains like Regal Entertainment Group and AMC Entertainment, because the Justice Department said those technologies are not generally made available in theaters.

The department also proposed improving furniture and equipment like ATM cash machines and communications with 911 emergency call centers.

Editing by Todd Eastham

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