Cellphones and text messaging must be more accessible to Canadians with disabilities within the next year under new rules released by Canada's telecommunications regulator Tuesday.

The rules also require broadcasters to make more TV programs accessible to the blind and improve the quality for closed captions for deaf Canadians, said a release from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

There are more than four million Canadians with disabilities, the commission noted.

Under the new rules, which are being released after public consultations in November:

  • Phone companies must offer a new service that converts text messages into voice-over-internet, and vice-versa, for people who are deaf or hard of hearing by July 21, 2010.
  • Cable, satellite, phone and wireless companies must promote information about their special services for people with disabilities in an accessible manner by July 21, 2010. They must also include a special page on their websites for people with disabilities by that date.
  • Every wireless provider must keep in its inventory at least one cellphone model accessible to people who are blind or who have moderate-to-severe mobility or cognitive disabilities by Oct. 21, 2009.

The CRTC has also asked a working group to provide a report by Jan. 21, 2010, on how to make 911 services more accessible to people with disabilities.

For broadcasters, the regulator is requiring that they:

  • Show they are improving the quality of closed captioning for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  • Make audio descriptions of text or graphics such as weather updates, sports scores or financial data available to people who are blind, especially in news broadcasts.
  • Provide at least four hours of dramas, documentaries and children's programming per week that includes audio descriptions for people who are blind, such as information about the actors' costumers or body language.

The new rules must be met by the time broadcast licences expire and must be renewed, which is in 2010 and 2011 for some networks, or by 2014 for those with six- or seven-year licences.

The rules will also apply to the CBC and its French-language service, Radio-Canada, and to French-language broadcasters, which did not have to provide audio descriptions as conditions of their licences before.