by Melanie Brunson

If you are one of those people who have tried recently to purchase a new appliance for your home, or to find out the time of your favorite team's next game, or find out how to use that fancy cell phone you got for Christmas or Hanukkah, then you may be one of the people we want to hear from. You have probably had to overcome at least one obstacle that initially interfered with your ability to use the particular product or service that you were trying to access, and it is quite possible that you have not yet succeeded in gaining access to that product or service as you read this article. Access, or the lack of access, to items such as home appliances, consumer electronics, web sites, DVDs and E-books, can significantly impact the ability each of us has to maintain the lifestyle we want to maintain on a day-to-day basis. That's why our efforts to improve the usability and accessibility of the products and services people use every day are an important part of ACB's advocacy agenda.

Some of these efforts don't get the attention in these pages that they probably should. We write about the high-profile issues frequently, but there are a number of ongoing efforts to improve the accessibility of everyday products and services that we haven't mentioned here in quite awhile. So let's change that trend beginning now.

One of the most basic aspects of any access issue involves the standards used to design the product or define the manner in which a service is delivered. It is always best when these standards can be constructed in a manner that will incorporate features into the product or service that make it accessible to and usable by people who are blind or visually impaired. Otherwise, things have to be retrofitted, and that is never as efficient as making something accessible in the first place. However, the development of standards can be a lengthy and painstaking process. ACB has had the good fortune to have members and staff who have been willing to participate in a number of standard-setting entities over the years and their persistence and tenacity have led to many of the advances in technology, products and services we have today. But, as you can probably guess, this work is far from complete. As technologies evolve, and new products hit the market, new access issues arise, requiring us to point out new barriers and recommend new standards to address them. Fortunately for ACB, our standards experts -- both staff and volunteers -- are ready and willing to accept this challenge. They are already beginning to plan for the next round of deliberations, which will take place later this year. I am hopeful that we will be able to report some significant developments to you as a result of their work, particularly in the area of accessible home appliances. One of the issues we hope to tackle in the coming months is the accessibility of appliances used in public housing facilities. It is our view that access to a home involves much more than ramps and doorways. One must be able to control the heating and air conditioning and make use of the household appliances put there for the tenant's use.

Similar opportunities for us to make our case for access to home appliances have arisen on the legislative front. Numerous emergency preparedness bills are under consideration by Congress this year. S. 2124, which was introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), provides funding for mobile homes that can be used to relocate individuals at government expense whose homes are destroyed by disasters. Our governmental affairs staff is working on language which would provide that if such homes are equipped with appliances, they must be accessible to and usable by people who are blind or visually impaired. It is our belief that if we can increase the availability of accessible appliances for housing facilities provided by the federal government, this will increase the likelihood that such appliances will also be available for use in private homes.

In addition to our work on standards and legislation, ACB has been working directly with business and manufacturing concerns to increase their awareness of common access issues faced by people who are blind or have low vision. I am happy to report that our discussions with a number of these entities have been very positive. In fact, I am excited about the fact that a number of them have expressed interest in having ACB members participate in focus groups during the next year. We are currently trying to arrange for a number of such focus groups to be conducted and I hope to have more information about how you might participate in them during the coming months. Our goal is to include companies across a variety of sectors including telecommunications, entertainment, banking, consumer electronics, home appliances, retail, travel, and others. If any of you have suggestions with regard to companies you would like to see us involve in this effort, or an interest in participating in the focus groups we conduct, please get in touch with me. You can contact me at the ACB national office, or send me an e-mail to [email protected] I will keep you posted on ACB's efforts to make products and services that affect your lifestyle more accessible and usable. But don't be surprised if someone contacts you to find out if you'd be interested in having a part in those efforts as well. After all, it's your life, so you may be just the person to let someone know what barriers inhibit and what access features could improve the quality of it!

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