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"Building Curb Cuts on the Information Highway"

Address By
Chairman William E. Kennard
Federal Communications Commission

Before the

National Association of the Deaf

July 3, 2000
Norfolk, Virginia

(As Prepared for Delivery)

Thank you, Pam, for that wonderful introduction, and for inviting me to speak to this convention. I am very honored to be here today.

I also thank you, Pam, for the wonderful work that you do. You all should know that Pam Holmes and Libby Pollard are very are powerful advocates for people with disabilities. They have helped achieve many victories for you and they’ve made my job much, much easier. It has been a privilege to work with them and all the other great people of this organization. I am pleased to be able to publicly thank them today.

I also wanted to come here today to thank you, on behalf of the entire Federal Communications Commission, for letting us steal Karen Peltz Strauss from you. As you know, Karen was NAD’s top lawyer in Washington for many years. I feel very privileged that she is now my colleague at the FCC and my ally – on the inside – fighting for the rights of people with disabilities.

I flew here today from Washington. It was a glorious day for a plane ride. And as I descended into the airport at Norfolk, I got a spectacular view of the magnificent waterways and docks and the giant shipyards that define this city.

Norfolk is truly defined by the sea. This reminded me of a story of another community defined by the sea. It is a story you all know well: the history of the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Two centuries ago, there were many deaf people living on that island. And because of this, an extraordinary thing happened: in order for the community to function, everyone used sign language.

People used sign language even when no deaf person was present. The mayor of the island was deaf. Hearing people on fishing boats used sign language to communicate over the sound of the howling Atlantic Ocean winds.

And for that brief, shining moment in history, the barriers that divide and segregate us came down. A community came together and everyone was a part of it.

In many ways, the entire history of the movement for disability rights is a story about recapturing for all of America that shining moment in our history, on that one little island in New England, when the barriers came down, when all the people realized how much stronger the community can be when everybody becomes a part of the community.

This month we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Passage of that law was a monumental achievement for all Americans – not just because it created laws which break down physical barriers to access, but because it broke down barriers in people’s minds. It showed Americans how much stronger our country can be when everybody becomes a part of our country.

The ADA made the physical world more accessible -- restaurants, classrooms, bathrooms and streets. Yet increasingly, Americans live and work in another world. It is not a world of bricks and mortar. It is a world comprised of billions upon billions of digital bits that move at the speed of light over fiber optic cables and through the airwaves - - digital bits that reside in servers in our homes and offices and are manipulated by software.

It is an exquisitely complex world that we call the World Wide Web. This world -- the virtual world -- it is every bit as real as the physical world. And it is just as important, because those who have access to this world and can navigate through it with ease have a huge advantage in our society and in our economy.

This is because Americans spend more and more time in the virtual world. People go there to get all kinds of information about our world. People go there to get college degrees and to find jobs. They go there to seek medical care. They go there to shop and to socialize and to play games. And many of them go there to fall in love. But that is a story for another speech.

Too many Americans with disabilities are being left out of this virtual world: Americans who need access to the technology that can bring them jobs and information and education in ways undreamed of just a few years ago. This is the real power of our new digital economy. And the real challenge of the New Economy is to make sure that this wondrous technology uplifts the lives of every American and brings us together -- regardless of age or ability.

That is the challenge that President Clinton and Vice President Gore have embraced. Under the leadership of the President and the Vice President, the Department of Justice has more than doubled the size of its ADA enforcement program, and has removed barriers to opportunity: barriers in city halls, court houses, hospitals, hotels, theaters, stores and restaurants across the country. It has worked to ensure that our nation’s public transit systems are more accessible than at any other point in our history.

President Clinton and Vice President Gore understand that we must make the virtual world accessible to all Americans. And making our telecommunications networks accessible is the challenge that I have made our top priority at the Federal Communications Commission.

The ADA gave people with disabilities the right to navigate any street, to have access to any business. Now there is access to the store that sells these magical gadgets, from wireless phones to digital TV. But what is the point if you cannot use the products because they are not accessible?

That must change. And we are changing it.

At the FCC, we are working with you to build the first curb cuts on the Information Highway.

We are writing the rules and policies to say that the 54 million Americans with disabilities must have access to the telecommunications products and services that we use in our jobs, our schools, and our lives, every single day.

We are saying that barriers will no longer be tolerated. Not in the physical world. Not in the virtual world.

We are saying that it must be our national policy that no one be denied access to our telecommunications networks.

Congress gave us important tools in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to achieve this; and we have put these tools to good use. Everyday, we are building new curb cuts on the Information Highway.

What does this mean for you?

Here are some examples. We recently wrote new rules which say that Americans must have access to interactive voice menus and voice mail. Interactive phone menus seem to have taken over our society. These days, you can not call your bank, or your doctor, or an airline, or just about any business, or even the government for that matter, without confronting one of these interactive voice mail machines. Now, hearing people find these systems frustrating to use; for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, they are impossible. Our new rules require manufacturers to make interactive menus accessible to you. And we will do what it takes to enforce this mandate.

Interactive voice menus and voice mail: another curb cut on the Information Highway.

TRS is another example. Last February, we completely overhauled our TRS rules to keep pace with the Information Age.

Our new rules promise a faster, more efficient text-based relay service tailored to the needs of people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. We said there must be minimum typing speeds for communication assistants and we shortened the time for answering TRS calls. And we also required relay services to handle interactive menus and recorded messages.

You told us that you wanted relay services to be more like other telephone services. You wanted services that are in real time, fast and smooth, and transparent to the user. You said you wanted services that can convey information that is just as important as the words to a conversation - - you wanted services that can convey the emotions of a call.

We heard you. Our new rules now provide incentives for local and long distance video relay services that use Communications Assistants fluent in American Sign Language. The telecommunications industry is investing billions of dollars to upgrade our networks to deliver high-speed, broadband services to American homes. We must make sure that you have access to them.

That is why this year we issued proposed rules to ensure that new technologies continue to improve relay services. We are looking at how relay services can migrate to the Internet. We are looking at how we can educate more Americans about relay services so that fewer people hang up on relay callers, and so that more hearing people initiate relay calls.

My vision is that we must change the way people think about relay services, so that people think of relay services as the functional equivalent of other voice calls. We should not rest until that is achieved.

Improved and expanded TRS services: another curb cut on the Information Highway.

Access to emergency information is another area where we have been very active.

Several months ago, I read a news article about a deaf woman in Florida who did not evacuate her home during Hurricane Floyd because her local television station failed to flash storm warnings on the screen, and the flood warnings were not captioned. She spent a long, terrifying night on a rooftop, waiting for a helicopter to rescue her. She is fortunate to be alive.

There are too many stories like this. In fact, I learned many of them from the many wonderful e-mails I received from members of NAD’s Telecommunications Action Network.

It is a situation that is simply intolerable. So we did something about it.

Last April, we issued rules that give all Americans access to emergency services.

We said that if you are deaf or hard-of-hearing, you will know about threats before they strike. We said that broadcasters, cable companies, and satellite operators must make televised information about emergencies accessible, and that all Americans must have advance warnings about floods, fires, hurricanes, and other emergencies. We also said that you must have the information you need to respond to those emergencies. If there are roads closed, you must know which ones. If there are shelters to go to, you must know how to get to them. If the water is contaminated, you must know how to find clean water. Our new rules apply to every television station -- no exceptions.

Emergency captioning: another curb cut on the Information Highway.

And we have not forgotten about captioning for non-emergency situations.

A few years ago, the FCC required all television networks to fully caption their programs by 2006. After 50 years without access, deaf Americans are now finally able to fully enjoy television with their friends and family.

And captioning is becoming something that all Americans appreciate as a accepted way that we all use television. We should all be proud of that. But there is more work to be done. I am concerned when I hear complaints about captions stopping in the middle of programs, or captions that are so badly garbled they are not comprehensible. This is simply not acceptable, and we will do what it takes to enforce our rules. And you can certainly help us to do that.

Captioning is another important curb cut on the Information Highway.

I am so very proud of the work that we have done together. And I am so very honored that the FCC is being recognized for the achievements that we have made. But we have a lot more to do.

Later this month, I will ask the Commission to establish 711 numbers as a nationwide number for access to relay services. This will make TRS more accessible to everybody -- easier, faster, more convenient. You will not have to worry about finding the right relay number when you travel to a different state. It will be easier for you to fill out applications, doctors' forms, and even prepare your business cards, so that you can receive more calls back from hearing people.

And we must stay abreast of digital technology. Next month I will also ask the Commission to establish captioning standards for digital television, so that you can harness digital technology to enhance the captioning experience, allowing you to control the color, the fonts, the size and the location of the captions you watch.

Changes in technology should give us more accessibility tools. Back in the early part of the 20th century, you had access to silent movies. When the "talkies" came, that access was taken away. It has taken us nearly three quarters of a century to being to get that access back. We cannot let that happen again.

And nowhere does technology move faster than on the Internet. Here, we must meet the accessibility challenge head on.

We must find ways to ensure that you continue to have keyboard access to the Internet -- that voice recognition technology in the early 21st century does not exclude you from the Internet just as the "talkies" made movies inaccessible in the early 20th century.

I have worked hard as Chairman of the FCC to keep the Internet free from regulation, so that it can grow and innovate. And I have fought hard to ensure that no access charges, taxes, or fees are levied on emerging technologies like the Internet, so you can enjoy low-cost connections.

But with freedom comes responsibility. The emerging Internet industry must act responsibly. That means making the Internet accessible for people with disabilities.

For the Internet is to be truly user-friendly, it must be deaf-friendly.

We are working closely with the providers of Internet telephony services to find accessibility solutions.

And I applaud companies like AG Bell-Seimens, Lucent, and the Center for Applied Special Technology for their excellent commitment to making access part of the design culture.

We cannot afford to repeat the painful experience of digital wireless phones when those phones were not accessible for TTY and hearing aid users. Access was denied to millions of people. These issues must be considered in the design phase of these products. When access is incorporated at the design stages, costs go down and access goes up.

We have many, many challenges ahead. But I want to leave you with what I believe is our greatest challenge.

We must change the way our country thinks about accessibility. Our greatest challenge is not only to write good rules and policies that break down barriers, but also to break down barriers in people’s minds - - to change the mindset about accessibility.

At the FCC, we have met this challenge by opening our doors to people with disabilities. We have reached out. We have listened. Indeed, your motto has become our motto: "Nothing about us without us."

We have created at the FCC a place where industry, government and the disability community meet to find solutions.

But we have also made clear that when solutions cannot be arrived at voluntarily, then we will write the rules and devote the resources to enforcing them.

So we created the first Office of Disability Rights in the history of the agency to make sure that this community has an institutional voice at the FCC. And I put Pam Gregory in charge of it. Many of you know Pam Gregory. She is the heart and soul of our disability agenda at the FCC.

We have recruited top talent from the disability community to drive this agenda: Karen Strauss from this organization; Scott Marshall from the American Foundation for the Blind; and Jennifer Simpson from the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.

We created the first-ever Enforcement Bureau at the FCC and empowered it with the will and the resources to make sure that our rules are enforced.

I do believe that we have changed the way people think about accessibility, both inside and outside the FCC. We have broken through barriers in people’s minds.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the support of this community and this organization in particular.

I feel very proud that in my brief tenure at the FCC we have been able to build many new curb cuts on the Information Highway. And I feel very privileged that I have been able to know you, to learn from you, and, most importantly, to use the tools that you created.

I feel proud to stand on the shoulders of Ron Mace, the father of accessible design.

I feel proud to stand on the shoulders of King Jordan, the first deaf president of Gallaudet University.

I feel proud to stand on the shoulders of Justin Dart, one of the fathers of the ADA.

I feel proud to stand on the shoulders of all of the people who have devoted their life work to this struggle. All those who have fought and cajoled and persisted and protested to achieve what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the "beloved community" where all Americans come together and meet as equals: people like Claude Stout and Pam Holmes, Nancy Bloch and Judy Harkins, Phil Bravin and Al Sonnenstrahl.

I feel proud to stand on your shoulders.

And I feel proud to stand on the shoulders of our ancestors on the tiny island of Martha’s Vineyard who, some two hundred years ago, somehow managed to create, for a brief shining moment, the beloved community that we still cherish today.

Their achievement in the physical world must be our vision for the virtual world. A world with no barriers. Not in the physical world. Not in the virtual world. Not in our minds.

I know that vision is alive in the heart of every person in this room tonight.

And I know that together we can recapture that shining moment. We can create Dr. King’s beloved community. Not for the disability community, but for the American community, for everyone.

We can do this. We can and we will.

Thank you.