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September 15, 2005

Press Release

Access Alerts: Making Emergency Information Accessible to People with Disabilities

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 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-- 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.

Access Alerts National Advisory Board

Kenneth B. Allen, American Council for Technology and the Industry Advisory Committee

Brenda Battat, Self Help for Hard of Hearing People

Nancy J. Bloch, National Association of the Deaf

Melanie Brunson, American Council of the Blind

Elizabeth A. Davis, EAD & Associates, LLC

Alan M. Dinsmore, American Foundation for the Blind

Betty Dodds, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Weather Service (NWS)

David P. Govostes, Massachusetts Commission for the Blind

Judith Harkins, Gallaudet University Department of Communication Studies

Cheryl Heppner, Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons

Helena Mitchell, Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Mobile Wireless Technologies for Persons with Disabilities, Georgia Institute of Technology

Heidi Larson Reed, Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Claude L. Stout, TDI/Telecommunications for the Deaf, Inc.

Hilary Styron, Emergency Preparedness Initiative, National Organization on Disability

John Tommaney, Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency

Vincent Tunstall Wood, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL)

About the Department of Commerce's Technology Opportunities Program (TOP)

TOP promotes the widespread availability and use of digital network technologies in the public and non-profit sectors. As part of the Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), TOP gives grants for model projects demonstrating innovative uses of network technologies. TOP evaluates and actively shares the lessons learned from these projects to ensure the benefits are broadly distributed across the country. Additional information about TOP can be found at

About NCAM

Work on making emergency alerts accessible grows out of WGBH's three decades of experience pioneering and furthering access solutions to mass media for people with disabilities. WGBH developed captioning for television in the early '70s and brought video description (which describes on-screen action, settings, costumes and character expressions during pauses in dialogue) to television and videos in the late '80s. Throughout the '90s, these services were applied and integrated into other forms of mass media, including movie theaters (via WGBH's "MoPix" technology and service), Web sites (via WGBH's MAGpie, a free software tool that enables do-it-yourself captioning and description for digitized media) and classrooms (through projects which utilize captioning and description to increase literacy levels and foster inclusiveness for all students). Today, all of WGBH's access initiatives are gathered in one division, the Media Access Group at WGBH. For more information, visit

About WGBH

WGBH Boston is America's preeminent public broadcasting producer, the source of fully one-third of PBS's prime-time lineup, along with some of public television's best-known lifestyle shows and children's programs and many public radio favorites. WGBH is the number one producer of Web sites on, the most-visited dot-org on the Internet. WGBH is a pioneer in educational multimedia and in technologies and services that make media accessible to the 36 million Americans who rely on captioning or video descriptions. WGBH has been recognized with hundreds of honors: Emmys, Peabodys, duPont-Columbia Awards, even two Oscars. In 2002, WGBH was honored with a special institutional Peabody Award for 50 years of excellence. For more information visit

For additional information, including background on project staff and how to contribute information or expertise to this effort, please contact:


Mary Watkins, Media Access Group at WGBH
617.300.3700 voice/fax
617.300.2489 TTY