United Nations International Day of Disabled Persons
December 1, 1999
(as prepared for delivery)
"Building a Second Curb Cut"
Thank you, Dr. David Waugh, for that kind introduction. You know, the Committee headed by Dr. Waugh, the People to People Committee on Disabilities, has been in existence since 1954. Founded as part of an initiative by President Eisenhower to promote peace and understanding on a global level, for four decades Dr. Waugh’s Committee has placed an important global spotlight on disability issues. That is a lengthy—and impressive—record of service, and I’m honored to be associated with such an august organization.
I am from Los Angeles. I grew up near Hollywood. I know that on Oscar night each winner ascends the stage and proceeds to thank everyone including their third cousin once removed for making their award possible.
You will be happy to know my thank you will be brief.
Thank you to all the members of America’s Athletes with Disabilities, the People-to-People Committee on Disabilities, the U.S. Council for International Rehabilitation, and all NGO partners of the United Nations for this generous award, and to my many partners in the fight for disability rights. This award is a tribute to my staff at the FCC, which has made disability and accessibility issues a priority at the Commission, and to the industry executives and design engineers committed to creating communications products that are accessible. Above all, it is a tribute to people with disabilities who have inspired me and others by their struggle for equal access.
We have entered the last month of the twentieth century. And now that we are here I find myself thinking more about the people and themes that have helped define the century we are about to leave. And one of the things I have noticed is how often individual Americans have made a difference in their communities—how ordinary people standing up for their beliefs, holding their ground, can blaze a trail for the rest of the nation.
We see the power of individuals at work in virtually every reform movement of the century, from the struggle for women’s suffrage in the early 1900s to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But nowhere is this power more apparent than in the struggle for disability rights.
Twenty, 30 years ago, some of you began talking a lot more about disability rights. You began knocking on doors, writing articles, making phone calls, doing the little things that put the movement on its tracks. You took an issue once thought marginal by the public and placed it at the fore of the national agenda. You altered attitudes and opened people’s minds to an issue unknown to many.
You helped win passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and enshrine into law the notion of disability rights. You achieved access to the nation’s public institutions and private buildings for 54 million Americans with disabilities. And you inspired passage of Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act--the ADA for the Information Age.
What I like about Section 255 is that it recognizes the importance of technology to this country’s future. The law is based on the idea that in the next century technology is becoming fundamental to everything we do. It acknowledges that information technology accounts for nearly a quarter of the economy and that technology is changing the way Americans work and shop and interact with friends and family.
And it says that all Americans must have access to these critical work tools and products: access to the phone network, the basic services that run over it, and to the equipment that connects to it.
But the impact of the disability community stretches beyond simply rule-making and new legal requirements. People with disabilities have also helped change the culture, making for the first time in history a substantial portion of the public aware of disability issues.
I know you have influenced and educated us at the FCC and also this nation’s business executives and design and manufacturing engineers. And I know you have created a powerful ripple effect that is bearing new fruit every day.
Last July, as part of this rippling effect, for the first time the FCC adopted rules implementing Section 255: we said communications products and services must be made accessible, and in saying so we helped build the first curb cut of the Information Age.
But we have refused to rest on our laurels, refused to stand still and marvel at the achievements of recent months. This is a powerful piece of legislation. The disability community is a powerful force for social change. Together, the two forces—currents, actually—have opened the floodgates to new efforts in the telecommunications and accessibility arena.
Section 255 says that communications products and services have to be accessible. But it also says that so too does the information that supports those products. The law states that both the new communications tools—cellular phones, pagers, to name but two—and the services for which those tools are used, must be accessible. It says that people with disabilities must have access to Caller ID, call-waiting, interactive voice mail and consumer information about these services--whether that information is provided in product manuals, call centers, or on web sites.
We’ve already seen the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association’s web site on wireless products – a web site that lists accessible services and equipment and complies with the World Wide Web Consortium’s accessibility guidelines. On this site, persons who are blind can access the web through computer screen readers, and persons who are deaf can have captioning access to audio files. That shows encouraging progress.
Three weeks ago we established a new Office of Disability Rights. The Office will oversee the Commission’s policies and proceedings on disability access issues. It will serve as a sounding board for people with disabilities, and it will also work with our Enforcement Bureau to help enforce 255 and work with all areas of the Commission on how to ensure access in everything we do at the Commission.
Two weeks ago, the Commission also proposed new rules for television. We said that broadcasters must use technology that will allow people who are blind or have low vision to follow television programs by listening to narrative descriptions of the shows. We said that television is the most important cultural medium in our society —a shared experience that connects people—and that people with disabilities can no longer be shut out from the programs that millions watch every night.
But this is not all we are doing in television. We have created strong captioning rules to ensure that people who are deaf and hard of hearing will have full access to television. By the year 2006, we expect that nearly 100% of new television programming will have closed captioning features. And we have an open proceeding on digital television examining how digital technologies can enable viewers to control the font, spacing, color, and position of captions.
A number of people from the blind community attended our Commission hearing. And later I read that one of those people, Chet Avery, a retired administrator for the Department of Education, told a reporter, quote, "Everyone is going to win as a result of [the FCC’s decision]. Access is going to be expanded, and isn’ t that what democracy is all about?"
People like Mr. Avery are the most powerful agents of change. They inspire our rule-making, define what access means, and create those tiny currents that are now reverberating so loudly in the Commission’s hallways and offices.
The FCC is not the only place where the disability community is having an impact. Not long ago, I heard a story about a telecommunications executive at a conference here in Washington. The executive said that his company was unable to manufacture a phone with a TTY jack. He said their phones were too small for the jack, the cost of installation, too high. It was impossible. Impossible.
As he was saying these things, an engineer from his same company stood up, pulled the executive aside, and told him that the TTY jack was not so difficult to install. Then he pulled out a phone—the same one the executive had been talking about—that already had a TTY jack installed in it. With technology, everything is possible.
As Mr. Avery pointed out, democracy is about prying open doors and creating opportunities. It is about the executives at Nokia who had the foresight to build a phone with a nib on it, about executives at Microsoft and We Media who are being honored today for designing products and technologies that are accessible to people with disabilities. And it is about an engineer standing up, proving that installation is possible, about you, the advocates who have never stopped fighting, and about all of us working together to make accessibility a part of our culture, something we take for granted. That is an achievement of which we will all be proud.