US Regulator Set to Boost Demand for Language Accessibility in Video Conferencing

US Federal Communications Commission Video Conferencing Regulation

Just as the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) celebrates the 89th anniversary of its founding, the agency has updated its policies to address the accessibility of video conference platforms.

The FCC adopted a Report and Order, Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, and Order at a June 8, 2023 open meeting, and is accepting comments up to 30 days after the order’s publication in the Federal Register.

The Accessibility Advocacy and Research Organizations, a coalition of disability advocacy and research groups, reported that “many of the 13% of American adults who have hearing difficulties found themselves cut off from colleagues during calls on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and other virtual platforms. Faces on the screen are often too small for lipreading, and a lack of captions can make meaningful interaction impossible.”

The FCC identified multiple challenges posed by video conferencing, including a lack of or low-quality captioning; ineffective display of sign language interpreters; and insufficient user control of accessibility tools.

The agency has therefore introduced performance objectives that require platforms to include speech-to-text and text-to-speech features, as well as features that enable the use of sign language interpreting.

Moreover, if a platform offers free accounts, built-in closed captioning functionality must be available for those users at no extra charge.

While some video conferencing platforms handle accessibility features in-house, others offer users a choice of third-party live captioning or synchronous automatic captioning — services which, in some cases, are provided by language service providers.

Even in cases in which live closed captioning using automatic speech recognition is offered, the FCC cautions, quality and timeliness can vary, possibly preventing individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing from participating fully in communications.

“The delays inherent in live captioning can lead to ‘cognitive overload’ as users try to follow poorly synchronized visual and textual conversations,” according to a 2022 report to Congress.

Video conferencing platforms will have a grace period of one year from the Federal Register publication of the Report and Order to comply with the new accessibility requirements.