March 8, 1998
Thank you for inviting me to speak at your annual leadership conference, and thank you, Carl, for that generous introduction.
The story of how an obscure teacher at Boston's School for the Deaf named Alexander Graham Bell changed the world with his invention is pretty well known, and no wonder.
Some of it is pretty dramatic.
The most famous event is that moment when Mr. Bell spilled some acid and said, "Watson, come here, I want you" and Watson was stunned to hear the words coming through clearly on the new machine.
There was a lot of skepticism about whether Bell's gadget would work. In London, stockbrokers couldn't figure out why somebody would want to send messages over a machine. It seemed so impersonal, they said, when you could use messenger boys.
In fact, the story of Bell's invention is a story of persistence in the face of obstacles. Its success not only took others by surprise. It surprised him, too.
Much later in life, he told Helen Keller, "the more I look at the world, the more it puzzles me. We are forever moving towards the unexpected." That is so true.
Certainly, even Bell never expected the world we have today: one where somebody in Paris can pick up a cell phone the size of a wallet and talk to somebody in Washington. Or where we can open up a laptop on a train and e-mail a speech or letter to twenty friends at once.
It makes you realize how powerless we are to predict the future.
Still, whatever lies ahead, there is no doubt that as we approach a new century and a new Millennium, extraordinary changes in technology lie ahead.
But as those advances take place, one of the challenges will be to benefit all Americans.
For how does it profit a country to build the best airplanes, or automobiles -- or telephones -- if those inventions can't benefit every citizen?
Nobody knows this better than the members of the American Foundation for the Blind and the American Council of the Blind. Scott Marshall, Alan Dinsmore, Paul Schroeder and all of your officers and members work tirelessly to make sure that telecommunications services that would amaze even Alexander Graham Bell are available to people with disabilities. The American people are indebted to you. Personally, I want to thank you for your efforts -- coming to the FCC, filing comments, and providing guidance on these issues.
We need to make telecommunications better. And we need to make society more inclusive.
Today I want to talk about how we should move ahead on both fronts.
I bring a special perspective to this twin responsibility.
For those of you who cannot see me, I'm African American. I bring up my heritage because I have been profoundly influenced by, and benefitted from, the struggles that people of color have waged to promote equal opportunity in this country. Nobody handed African Americans the rights we enjoy today. Those rights were won. In the courtrooms and the classrooms, on picket lines and cafeteria lunch lines, on Freedom Rides across the South and polling places across America, pioneers of the civil rights movement in this country fought for those rights. They fought for equal opportunity.
And here I stand, today, on the shoulders of those pioneers, with the same message of equal opportunity for leaders in the disability rights movement.
We cannot ignore the needs of those with disabilities. We cannot create a society that leaves out the 26 million Americans with hearing disabilities or the nine million with sight disabilities or the 2.5 million Americans with speech disabilities.
It's just too much a part of America.
It's too important a segment of the American family.
As we look into the future, we must strive to ensure that advances in technology benefit everyone.
Along with the other FCC Commissioners, I recently got a glimpse of what that future means.
At one of our meetings we decided to show an example of what accessible telecommunications can mean. We saw a demonstration of speech-to-speech relay services -- a service that allows persons with speech disabilities to use the telephone.
But it wasn't the technology that kept us mesmerized. It was Dr. Bob Segalman. Bob is a speech-to-speech pioneer. We watched Bob sit in front of us and, with his quiet breaths, whisper into a phone while a trained communications assistant relayed those words to his mother three thousand miles away.
We all understood Bob's point: that while his way of communicating might be different, his need for telephone access is no less important than anyone else's. Without speech-to-speech relay, Bob can't talk to his mother on the phone -- or anyone else -- which for most of us is something we probably don't think twice about. Seeing what he needed to do -- what all of us on the Commission take for granted -- reaffirmed the awesome responsibility we have.
It is a responsibility that must be fulfilled in two important areas: access on the one hand; education and training on the other.
Those are the two areas I want to discuss with you.
Service providers and manufacturers no longer have the option of choosing whether to provide access to telecommunications equipment and services for people with disabilities.
It must be done.
That was mandated by Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
It is a broad mandate.
Given the fundamental role that telecommunications has come to play in today's world, Section 255 represents the most significant opportunity for people with disabilities since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
And at the FCC we intend to fully implement it. And I am committed as Chairman to devote the resources necessary to make it work.
To be unable to use telecommunications makes it next to impossible to get an education, to get a job -- even to call 911. It forces those without access to be dependent on the rest of society.
For those reasons alone, the failure to ensure access for people with disabilities comes at great cost.
But there are other reasons, too.
After all, doesn't limiting the access for 49 million Americans deprive this country of a wealth of ideas and ability? And haven't we seen that products designed initially for consumers with disabilities also turn out to appeal to the rest of America?
Of course we have.
There are countless examples.
Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone with the intention of creating a device that would assist his wife and his mother, who both had hearing disabilities.
The typewriter -- developed in Italy over 200 years ago for people who are blind. For the next 50 years, no one else was interested. But eventually, it became an everyday business tool. Over 100 years ago, a man named Herman Hollerith, who had a learning disability, was determined to organize information in a way he could understand. So, he devised the Hollerith Tabulating Machine.
The U.S. Government used the Hollerith Tabulating Machine to complete its 1890 Census; in 1924, Hollerith changed the name of his company to International Business Machines -- IBM -- and the rest is history.
We've seen a similar result made recently with closed captioning. At first designers saw it only as a tool for people with hearing disabilities.
Now, it's an educational tool used to improve reading comprehension. Immigrants use it to learn English. We see captioning in the gym, in airports, and even on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Speech recognition devices were originally designed for fighter pilots. Now you can buy them off-the-shelf. And the software is an important access tool for persons with spinal cord injuries and repetitive stress injuries.
All this is why, when we announce our implementation plan for Section 255, one of the things I want to do is provide incentives for industry to consider disability issues at the front end of the development and design process -- and on an ongoing basis.
Industry must be a partner in providing access. It will do that best when it has the flexibility to be innovative.
In fact, we're seeing one example of that at this conference: the test of Pocketalk by Motorola and CONXUS.
Pocketalk is a talking pager that receives completely private messages -- in the caller's own voice.
Its a great convenience. No need to find a telephone to call back and check messages -- not any more. That's a boon not only to people with visual disabilities, but also to those who have trouble getting to a telephone.
You know, for many years, people who wear hearing aids couldn't use telephones.
The solution to this problem was relatively simple: insert a T-coil in the handset. But it took an Act of Congress to require all telephone manufacturers to install this simple feature in all handsets -- the Hearing Aid Compatibility Act.
Why should we need legislation in a case like that? My hope is that Section 255 will encourage manufacturers and engineers to install accessibility features voluntarily
and at the design stage. That's their job.
But how do we know that industry is doing its job?
For that matter, how do we know government is doing its job?
That's where you come in.
The telecommunications industry already relies heavily upon consumer and disability policy organizations such as yours to provide guidance on the design of accessible telecommunications services and equipment. Organizations such as the Association of Access Engineering Specialists, for example, are now working on design and development issues.
I urge you and others in the disability community to continue working with the industry.
And I hope that you'll continue to work with the FCC as well. A lot of people at the Commission are working hard on that implementation plan. We need your insight and suggestions.
As the FCC moves to implement 255, we're moving to make some additional changes that will help make it easier for people with disabilities to contribute.
Soon, the Commission will begin allowing electronic comments to be filed in FCC rulemakings, using the World Wide Web and electronic mail. I want to mention the electronic filing proceeding, because I know that electronic documents (in ASCII format) are often compatible with the various assistive technologies that people with disabilities use. In addition to breaking down print barriers that prevent persons with disabilities to fully participate in our rulemaking process, electronic filing will also reduce the costs and complications from paper filings. I am eager to see the Commission find more ways to make our processes more accessible to you, as well as to all Americans.
One other issue that I would like the Commission to explore is video description. As you know, video description can help television come alive for people with sight disabilities. I believe that the Commission should explore whether providing video description services should be an element of broadcasters' public interest obligations.
The FCC is immeasurably aided in this work by the Disabilities Issues Task Force, whose current Director is Meryl Icove, and Deputy Director is Pam Gregory. Meryl is out of town today, but Pam Gregory is here. For those of you who don't know Pam and Meryl, I hope that you will get to know them. They work tirelessly on your behalf and the Commission and I rely on them immensely.
My predecessor, Reed Hundt, created the Disabilities Issues Task Force in 1995. Reed fought hard to ensure that people with disabilities gained a voice at the FCC. He forged a strong relationship with the disability community. And I am proud to continue this partnership with the disability community and with your organizations.
The Task Force is made up of representatives in every Bureau and Office within the Commission so that the priority of access for persons with disabilities will permeate in all our processes. And, it really makes a difference. But one of my goals as Chairman is for all of the FCC staff -- and not just the Task Force members -- to initiate access concerns automatically. Thinking about these issues should become second nature to everyone working at the FCC. Our work must expand well beyond our dedicated Task Force members. That is my goal as Chairman.
I want the FCC to become a more accessible, more user-friendly place for people with disabilities. I want advocates for the disability community to feel at least as welcome and knowledgeable about the FCC as the lobbyists for large telecommunications companies do.
That's why our Task Force reaches out so aggressively to disability organizations. We want you to find it easy to express your concerns to the Commission. And we want to meet those concerns.
So far, I've talked about access. Access to the Commission. Access to the rulemaking process. And access to telecommunications.
Now I want to talk about education and training.
There is simply no industry in America with the opportunity for well-paying jobs like telecommunications.
The U.S. needs 1.3 million new workers in information technology by 2006. The hi-tech industry was the single largest industry in the United States in 1996.
People with disabilities can and should fill many of those jobs.
After all, is there any doubt -- any at all -- that they can compete, and are even pace-setters, in the world of science and technology? Whether Stephen Hawking, perhaps the world's most famous scientist -- who has Lou Gehrig's disease, or Vint Cerf, the father of the Internet -- who has a hearing disability, or thousands of less-known examples, that myth has been disproved long ago.
The fact is, that if we do things right, the burgeoning world of telecommunications should make it easier for those with disabilities to have meaningful, well-paid jobs. More and more, people will not have to hop in a car and drive twenty miles to the office. They'll be able to work at home.
More and more, the jobs in the 21st Century will belong not to those who use their brawn but their brain.
Some colleges have already recognized what's coming. More and more universities offer computer science and engineering programs with classes in universal design. They know the opportunity this offers to those who until now have been shut out.
In fact, in order for Section 255 to be effective, the industry must have engineers and product designers ready to meet the demands of Section 255. What better opportunity can there be for engineers with disabilities -- people with firsthand knowledge about the problems we urgently need to fix?
Issues of vital importance to this country.
Sometimes people can forget that the decisions made in government offices influence lives.
But that's the most rewarding thing that we do.
We help people like Susan, a high school student with quadriplegia who has become adept at surfing the Internet through an eye gaze laser that acts as a mouse. Susan can't pick up a book physically. But she can select any book she wants. She can turn the pages herself. She can skip to the back of the book to see how it ends. And the Internet can take her to places that she could not otherwise visit.
And we help people like Scott, who is blind, and attends a high school in Georgia for gifted students. Scott used to spend hours every day studying Spanish. But then, his school connected to the Internet. Now he uses assistive technologies to access on-line Spanish-English dictionaries. That has reduced his time studying Spanish to 25 minutes a day. Now Scott can use that extra two and a half hours to conquer Shakespeare, physics, and international affairs.
That is the meaning of our work. And for me, the legacy of my years as Chairman will be how many thousands of people like Susan and Scott we can help. And I need your help. You must help us make decisions. You must serve as our conscience.
Helen Keller once wrote, "It is as easy to look at stars as at cobblestones."
Of course, she could see neither. But that never limited her imagination or constrained her intelligence.
My grandfather was a brilliant man. He was gifted in arts and literature. He wrote beautiful prose. And he was self taught. He could recite the works of Shakespeare. He had a wonderful mind. And he had endless potential. But do you know what he did for a living? He was a janitor. His barrier to access to greater opportunity was the color of his skin.
I often think of him. I think of how much more he could have contributed to his society if only his society had allowed him to reach the fullness of his own potential. I think of how different his life might have been had he been born a generation later.
But even today, in our generation, the potential of millions of Americans is wasted because they are denied access -- access to technology; to opportunity; to education. The law gives us tools to unlock this great potential. I have talked about some of those legal tools today.
But let us never forget that our mission is not only to change regulations. We know that it takes more than a regulation to compel people to see past differences and disabilities -- to see the inherent value in every person.
So our job is not only to change regulation, it is to change minds; to change attitudes; to change perceptions. It is to work toward a world in which all of our fellow citizens embrace diversity and recognize the potential and ability and value of every human being.
That is our mission. I feel very honored and privileged that as Chairman of the FCC I can join you in this mission. And I am here to promise you today, that so long as I am Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, your voices will be heard.