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Remarks of
William E. Kennard, Chairman
Federal Communications Commission
White House Disability Employment
Awareness Month Media Briefing

October 14, 1999

(As Prepared for Delivery)

"Turning the Clock Ahead"

Thank you, Jonathan Young, for that very kind introduction. With introductions like that, you better be careful: I might start showing up at all of your functions; you'll never get rid of me.

I feel very privileged to be here today. I feel very privileged to be the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. When President Clinton nominated me for this position, I decided that I would talk to every former FCC chairman I could find, to get their insights on the job.

So I met with every living former chairman of the FCC. And I got lots of good advice. I will never forget the advice that one of my predecessors gave me. He said, "You know, Bill, most of regulatory fights before the FCC are really just battles between the rich and the very wealthy. There are big money fights. And your job is to move the money from one deep pocket to another and keep them fighting each other and not you."

I thought about that. And it occurred to me, that you could certainly do the job that way. You could spend all of your time as chairman of the FCC meeting with the executives and industry lobbyists who press their cases at the agency. Sitting in corporate meetings with people who get paid a lot of money to press their claims and push their agendas. You really never have to leave your office. Some of my predecessors have done the job that way.

But I decided that I didn't want to do the job that way. That I couldn't do the job that way. I decided to do the job differently. I decided that I wanted to learn more about the power of technology in the lives of all Americans, and make sure that all Americans have access to the technology that is changing our economy and our world in fundamental ways.

The fact is that this new digital economy is being defined principally by its power to unlock the potential of markets, to transforms retailing and marketing, and to create unimaginable wealth for a privileged few in our society. I believe that the New Economy must be redefined. It must be defined, first and foremost, by its power to unlock the potential of all of our people - by its power to educate our poorest children, to empower people with disabilities, to uplift people in rural and inner city communities and to repair and revitalize the fabric of our communities. Only then will America unlock the true potential of the New Economy.

Fifty-four million Americans have a disability of some kind. This is the largest and most diverse minority group in the country, a massive American community whose members reside in every neighborhood in every town and city across the U.S. They live in the remote corners of Alaska and on sparsely-settled islands in Hawaii; they live on small farms and in big cities, hailing from every racial and ethnic background imaginable.

And 15 million of them want to work. They want to earn a salary and live independently. They want to pay taxes and buy goods and services.

And the hard reality is that on too many occasions, in too many places in America, people with disabilities are prevented from working. And they are prevented from doing so because they do not have access to the computers and phone lines and high-tech networks crucial to holding almost any job.

This is shameful and its got to change. And we should all have a sense of urgency, first, because as this economy goes digital, this economy in investing billions of dollars in rebuilding the network and the devices that use the network. Now is the time to make those networks accessible. And second, because every wasted day is a loss of potential and productivity to our economy that people with disabilities can contribute.

And if technology is the key to our economy, the key to our future, then let's use technology to unlock the potential of all our people. Let's use technology to unlock the potential of people with disabilities.

Last July, the FCC adopted rules to implement section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

We said that telecom manufacturers and providers have to design their products and services so that they are accessible to people with disabilities.

We said that from now on, 54 million Americans with disabilities must have access to the wondrous benefits of telecommunications technology.

We said barriers will no longer be tolerated.

We said this must be part of our national policy.

We said that people who are deaf and hard of hearing can no longer be denied access to telecommunications anytime, anywhere, or anyhow. And that includes voice mail and interactive menus.

These are common sense rules. They are enforceable rules. They are faithful to the law passed by Congress in 1996.

Imagine how our economy will benefit from true accessibility.

By the middle of the next century, 35 percent of the US population will be over 55, and at least one-third of them will have some sort of disability-some trouble hearing, seeing or moving.

Over the past few days, some reporters have asked me about our new Section 255 rules. They want to know how much it will cost the economy to make sure that telecommunications is accessible to Americans with disabilities.

Here's what I've been telling them. I say, if you want to talk about cost, think about the cost to our economy if we don't take steps to make sure that all members of our society can access telecommunications.

Think about that. Think about the costs to our productivity. Think about the wasted potential. Think about the loss to our society. So when the reporters ask me about cost, I say, think for a moment about the cost of not making telecommunications accessible. And then I tell them we can't afford not to do this.

What is the point of investing billions of dollars to construct a grand new digital infrastructure for a high-tech economy if all Americans can't access these networks or use these wonderful new gadgets?

The time to build this inclusiveness is now. We have accomplished much already and there is so much more to be done.

Our Section 255 rules are significant steps. But let us never forget that although writing rules is important, this is not just about writing rules; it's about changing attitudes-changing the culture.

We have to change the culture of the manufacturing community so that accessibility issues are dealt with in the design phase.

Recently we saw the importance of this in the wireless industry. Many in the industry said that they couldn't make digital phones compatible with TTYs. We told them that they could, and that they must. Now, Lucent Technologies and other companies say that they can do it and do it simply-and they can do it during the design phase.

Accessibility has to become part of the design culture. It has to become second nature to the people who design these products. Our telecommunications industry is one of the most innovative and creative industries the world has ever known. You give these brilliant engineers a problem and they will solve it.

And we have to create a culture of cooperation among the manufacturing community, the disability community, and the FCC. We need each other. I am pleased to see that culture of cooperation developing and I plan to do everything I can to nurture it.

But if cooperation breaks down, we have to be prepared to deal with that too. So we have to change the culture of enforcement at the FCC. If you write a rule, you have to muster the resources and the will to enforce it. I plan to do that. We are creating a new Enforcement Bureau at the FCC to change the whole culture of enforcement. And I will make enforcement of Section 255 an enforcement priority.

And finally, we must embrace a culture of change. We must recognize that our work in this area is never done. As this dynamic industry changes, we must change with it. The accessibility movement must keep up with the pace of change.

That's why we kicked off a proceeding to study how the development of Internet telephony will impact accessibility.

That's why we've also proposed new rules to make sure that as we look to the future, the world of digital television will also be a world of digital closed captioning. With digital television, viewers of closed captioning will be able to choose the font, size, color, location and placement of the captions.

And that's why I am working everyday to speed deployment of high-speed Internet access. I believe that broadband technology will introduce a whole new horizon of opportunity for the use of video relay interpreting. It's a wonderful opportunity that lies ahead.

But we have to keep moving. We have to embrace change.

And we have to keep fighting.

I am pleased to see many in the industry working with the FCC and the disability community to design products that are accessible. I applaud companies like Nokia, Bell Atlantic and Pacific Bell for making their products accessible, for complying with FCC rules and changing the culture of the telecom industry in this country. This is the right thing for them to do, and they are doing it.

But I am also hearing rumblings that some companies have decided to take a different path - a path not of cooperation, but confrontation. Some companies are saying that they will go into court and try to get our rules overturned.

If they do, I will use all of the resources at the FCC to defend our rules and to convince the courts that what we have done is lawful and reasonable and right. But I know that I won't stand alone in that fight. I know that there are 54 million Americans with disabilities who increasingly rely on accessible products and services, and just like they stood with the FCC in writing these rules, they will stand with us in defending these rules.

I'm urging every American who cares about disability issues to stand up and tell the telecom industry and the corporate executives that you are tired of waiting for basic phone service that is accessible to you.

Tell them you are tired of computer keyboards that do not suit your purposes.

Tell them these things, and then tell them that you will no longer tolerate corporations that want to turn back the clock.

Tell them that you will support companies that support you.

That will get their attention.

The disability community has made itself heard at the FCC. As my friend and colleague FCC Commissioner Michael Powell said recently, we see a lot of lobbyists at the FCC. Many of them are paid a lot of money to lobby the FCC. But few are as persuasive and powerful as the disability community.

There is a woman in California who is hard of hearing. She wrote to tell us that the interactive menus that many companies use don't make her life easier; they make her life more frustrating.

A woman from Indiana wrote to tell us about the difficulty she had in finding a cellular phone that can be turned loud enough or work with her hearing aid. A woman in Texas who is deaf wrote to tell us how she could never find the TRS number when she is traveling on business.

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting a young high school student from Georgia named Scott. Scott is blind. And he uses the web to access on-line Spanish-English dictionaries. This has made studying Spanish not only more fun for him, but it frees up his time to do everything that a young teenager wants to do.

These are the real heroes here. They are the ones on the front-lines of the disability struggle, twenty-first century visionaries who prying open the doors of opportunity, knocking down the barriers that for too long have hindered people in this country.

Tell them that we will stand together and never lose sight of our vision for the future: a nation in which all Americans can enjoy the benefits of the most important networks of our time.

We know that this is the right vision for America. If we keep up the fight, if this community, industry, and government all work together, then everybody wins.

Thank you.