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Access Alerts: Making Emergency Information Accessible to People with Disabilities

Access Alerts: Making Emergency Information Accessible to People with Disabilities


Editor: Making emergency information accessible to people with hearing loss is a critically important undertaking, and one that (thankfully) seems to be getting some national attention. Here are portions of a press release from NCAM about their new program to address this issue.




The WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM), a division of Boston’s public broadcaster WGBH, is uniting emergency alert providers, local information resources, telecommunications industry and public broadcasting representatives, and consumers in a collaborative effort to research and disseminate approaches to make emergency warnings accessible. This three-year project is funded by the Department of Commerce’s Technology Opportunities Program (TOP).


This project is addressing a most urgent need- to develop and encourage adoption of standardized methods, systems and services to identify, filter and present content in ways that are meaningful to people with disabilities leading up to, during and after emergencies. People who are deaf or hard of hearing and who rely on captioned television news alerts are often left out when emergency broadcasts are not, in fact, captioned. And people who are blind or have low vision watch television to stay informed, but are at a loss when on-screen graphics or text crawls are used to convey information. The use of wireless systems– the Web, cell phones and other personal devices– promise greater freedom, independence and even safety when traditional electronic media fails or service is interrupted, but these technologies hit the market with access barriers which present new challenges as well. The Access Alerts project will identify the gaps that exist between alert systems that deliver information, and the unrealized potential of these systems to serve the entire population.


Project activities, overseen by project director Marcia Brooks, include:


– a needs and resource assessment, with diverse consumers and within the public warning community;


– development of an information model that provides recommended accessibility extensions to emergency system protocols, technologies and services for wired, wireless , DTV- and IP-based delivery;


– end-user testing that will identify key usability factors that must be addressed to serve people with disabilities, including cross platform and cross-environment issues.


A public reference repository <http://ncam.wgbh.org/alerts/resources.html> has been established for summary documents of user needs, design requirements for accessible products and services, usability research and subject-related news articles and conference announcements.


The most direct impact of project activities will be provided by the integration of project solutions into partners’ commercial products. Project findings will be shared with the FCC and the Department of Homeland Security to help inform an inclusive and universal design for the nation’s information and emergency alert systems.


The project established a national forum– the Accessibility Working Group <http://ncam.wgbh.org/alerts/board.html>– within the emergency alert community for discussion of accessibility needs and solutions. Through the participation of the Access Alerts National Advisory Board (see members below), the project ensures that consumers are active participants in defining the need and determining how solutions are evaluated.