NCAM in the News

Captioning on the Web
WGBH unit is developing ways for disabled to use the Internet
by Jessica Sandin

May 13, 1996, Broadcasting & Cable

For millions of Americans with sensory disabilities, the new media's strong focus on sight and sound could mean they would be left behind on the information superhighway. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) is developing technology enabling them to stay en route.

Rooted in WGBH-TV Boston's long tradition of working to make media accessible to people with sensory disabilities, NCAM was launched in July 1993. Working closely with both the academic and the business communities, the center develops technologies to help the disabled as well as those with learning disabilities or low literacy skills. Among current projects are the Internet, high-definition television, multimedia, and video descriptions.

WGBH-TV's pioneering work, such as closed-captioning, was used with existing technology. For the array of new media, NCAM is trying to "stay ahead of the curve." Larry Goldberg, NCAM director, says it's much easier and cheaper to build in technology at the development stage than to modify a structure later.

It was clear to NCAM early on that the digital technology of HDTV offered an opportunity to create more sophisticated captioning. NCAM is part of the Advanced Television Closed Captioning Working Group, which includes other caption-service providers, caption hardware and software companies and receiver manufacturers. The group's work is resulting in a "much more fully featured" captioning system, Goldberg says. Captions can be placed in different areas of the screen; different fonts and styles are used and a 15-channel captioning service gives viewers a choice of reading speeds and languages if the producer provides it. The system still will be affordable, Goldberg says.

"We realize when we work with corporations that [accessibility for the disabled] is not the first thing they think of." Rather, business needs, such as affordability, must first be met. Goldberg stresses the "mutually satisfying" relationships that NCAM has with corporations including Intel, NYNEX and Microsoft. In return for their financial support, the center helps them to meet the legal requirements for accessibility. (The 1996 Telecommunications Act is the latest source of legal mandates, requiring new information systems to be accessible and video programming to be closed-captioned.)

At the development stage, NCAM often is financially supported by CPB or government grants. The first year of the Web Access Project, however, was fully financed by the Telecommunications Funding Partnership for People with Disabilities (the Dole Foundation, NEC, Mitsubishi and others).

"It was clear to us when the World Wide Web was beginning to take off that this was a new media with innate barriers to people with disabilities," Goldberg says. With the WGBH-TV Web site ( as a prototype, the project explores how the HTML code can be written so that text can be picked up by the screenreader, which the blind and visually impaired use with their computers, and descriptions substituted for certain important graphics and pictures. For the deaf and hearing impaired (or "people who don't want to wait forever for the audio to download," Goldberg adds), the obvious solution is something "like captions on TV" for the expanding audio part of the Web.

The work will result in guidelines for designing the various features of a Web site to make them accessible to the sensory disabled. The question "What can we do to raise awareness among Webmasters?" led to the idea of a symbol that can be used in Web sites to identify the accessibility option . The symbol--one of 17 entries--was chosen by users of the WGBH-TV Web site, many of whom are blind.

[An image and description of the Web access symbol accompanied this article.]

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