Emergency call centers could be equipped to communicate by text message. Websites might need to be programmed to speak to blind users. Movie theaters might have to install technology to allow the deaf to read captions on small screens mounted at their seats.

These and other proposals will be on the agenda this week as federal officials begin seeking ideas for expanding the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Twenty years after the law was adopted, the government wants to move the regulations beyond wheelchair ramps and accessible elevators into cyberspace and personal technology.

The updated regulations could mean sweeping changes across many industries and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

An estimated 40 million blind and deaf Americans stand to reap the biggest benefits, including 43-year-old Peter Berg, who lost his vision to diabetes in his 20's.

Using software that reads content to him, he can surf websites for work, check Facebook and pay his bills online.

But he hit a wall while trying to set up an account on a popular website that allows electronic money transfers.

"You needed to click on something, and it wasn't identifiable to the screen reader," said Berg, who provides technical assistance about the ADA.

The effort to update the law begins Thursday (Nov 18) with a Justice Department hearing in Chicago.

Additional hearings are scheduled for Dec. 16 in Washington and Jan. 10 in San Francisco.

The meetings are designed to gather input from the disabled and from industries that may be affected.

"We think it's important as a way to generate interest," said John Wodatch, chief of the department's disability rights section. New rules could take effect as soon as 2012.

Judy Brewer, director of the Web Accessibility Initiative at the World Wide Web Consortium, said the government is mainly addressing "parts of the web in the U.S. that are involved in accommodating the public, which includes people with disabilities." The cost for each site depends on its size, the type of content it offers and whether it's already designed using Web standards, said Brewer.

Copyright (c) 2010 The Star-Ledger. All Rights Reserved. Used by NewsBank with Permission.

Author: Carla Johnson / Associated Press

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