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William E. Kennard, chairman
Federal Communications Commission
Before the
Executive Committee, Presidents Committee on Employment of Persons with
Washington, DC
Monday, November 15, 1999
(as prepared for delivery)

"The New Frontier: Civil Rights in the Twenty-First Century"

Thank you, Ron Drach, for that kind introduction. And thank you John Lancaster and all the members of the Executive Board for inviting me here.

I am honored to be in the presence today of many of this nation's leaders of the disability rights movement. In the last 30 years many of you have helped bring about a major shift in the attitudes of Americans towards people with disabilities. Thanks to you, people with disabilities all over the country are no longer relegated to the national sidelines. They now have an opportunity to work and commute and attend school and live independently. They--and all of us--have a world that is dramatically different--and dramatically better--than the world of 30 years ago, a world of universal and inclusive design in which all Americans have the chance to participate fully in the economy and the culture.

When we think of civil rights we tend to think of Martin Luther King Jr., the Jim Crow South, and the black struggle for freedom in the 1960s. But today the civil rights movement has come to include not only African-Americans but people of all colors and ethnic and religious backgrounds. And it has also come to include Americans with disabilities, and the intersection of disability rights and telecommunications technology--and the challenge of figuring out how to make that technology accessible to all. No frontier will be more important than telecommunications and disability rights; it is the new frontier in the civil rights struggle.

I have often said that I am fortunate to be the chairman of the FCC at this time in our history. I am fortunate because we have a wonderful opportunity before us, a chance to make sure that every American has access to the tools of the twenty-first century economy. We have a chance to give people--people who have never had opportunity--a chance to work and succeed and participate fully in the promise of American life. Telecommunications represents a large and growing sector of the economy, and in the next century people will need to have access to the digital tools that are becoming an increasingly important part of our everyday lives. Telecom access, in short, is the key to unlocking economic opportunity.

Twenty, 30 years ago, we had to worry about doors being wide enough for wheelchair users; about transportation--buses, cars and the like-- being accessible so that people with disabilities had ways of commuting to work; about finding qualified interpreters who could get to the office for an 11:00 meeting.

Today, telecommunications technologies allow us to communicate and work any time, any place, and in any number of ways. Time and distance are no longer the barriers they once were to communications and work. Now, with a push of a button or activation of speech recognition, people with disabilities can gain access to information, contribute in the work force, and participate in society in ways like never before.

Technology is a remarkably powerful tool that can transform lives. But to infuse it with such power, we need a plan--a blueprint if you will--to make sure that every American reaps the benefits of the digital revolution. We must be the civil rights pioneers of the Information Age. We must make sure that this country does not end up with a world divided into Haves and Have-nots.

Last September we took a large pioneering step in the right direction. We released rules in conjunction with Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act, using the Americans with Disabilities Act as our blueprint, that will give people with disabilities access to telecommunications equipment and services. We said that people with disabilities must have access to the digital tools of the twenty-first century, and in doing so we made the first curb cut on the Information Sperhighway, creating the ADA for the Information Age.

When we were drafting our rules for Section 255, the President's Committee Employer Subcommittee wrote me and said that the Fortune 500 companies wanted telecommunications products that were accessible to the disability community. You said that as employers you had an obligation to provide accommodations for your employees; you said that it did not make sense to have someone on your payroll who was not being used to his or her fullest potential. You said that in order to grow as companies and compete in the marketplace, you needed to have access to the most advanced communications tools, and that you needed these tools to be accessible to employees with disabilities, as well as a customer base that has disabilities.

You asked us to come up with strong rules for the Information Age.

And I am pleased to say that we responded to that challenge. We responded to you, the American business community, and, most of all, we responded to the 54 million Americans who have a disability of some kind. We responded to the approximately 15 million Americans with severe disabilities, the people who want to work but are prevented from doing so because they don't have access to quality telecommunications tools and services.

Our response took the form of new rules, rules that have the power to change lives. Rules that mean that when employers hire a person with a disability, chances are that they will be able to use the phones and phone service you already have. This will reduce your costs in the reasonable accommodation process; Section 255 will not eliminate the need for accommodations for employees, but you are less likely to need a special catalogue to purchase special products. The products that you buy at Office Depot will have features that make them accessible to all Americans. The hands-free jack, or the volume control, or the high contrast display, these and other universal design innovations will make life easier for you, the businesses, and most important they will open doors that have been closed for too many years. I'm pleased to say that now, for the first time in American history, we have strong regulations mandating that technology be designed so that all Americans can have access to that technology.

But this is an exciting time not only for the Commission and the disability community but also for telecommunications engineers and designers who construct the digital gadgets of the information age. We've heard from human factors designers and technologists from around the globe, and they tell us that they love the flexibility of our rules. They tell me that our 255 regulations bring special meaning to their jobs, because they are not only designing products that make their products more usable; but also, they are changing peoples' lives.

And make no mistake: these products are already making a difference in people's lives. At Telecommunications for the Deaf, Inc.and other disability conferences, members of the disability community approach manufacturing booths out of curiosity, and they are surprised to see some booths that have telecommunications products that they can use and not just look at. And when they try the product, and realize that it actually works for them, the impact is nothing short of magical: people break into tears of joy at the Motorola, Nokia, and other booths as they realize that the products that are being produced are accessible to them.

And that, my friends, is what 255 is about: giving people access to the tools of the twenty-first century. It is about changing people's lives, about making sure that no one is left behind in the digital age.

We at the FCC is committed to making access a reality, and I am pleased to say that our work has only just begun. I have said that as the telecommunications industry changes, so too must the FCC. And so recently, I established two new bureaus with an important focus on consumers--the Enforcement Bureau, which will have a division devoted to consumer protection enforcement, and the Consumer Information Bureau, which will provide one-stop shopping for consumer inquiries and informal complaints. And within this bureau, I am pleased to report, we will have a new Office of Disability Rights, an Office that will be headed up by Pam Gregory, who is with me here today. The Office will advise the Commission on disability policy, and it will ensure that no one is left behind by this wondrous communications revolution. And we also were able to recruit Karen Peltz Strauss, one of the most respected disability accessibility attorneys, to be a Deputy Bureau Chief in the Consumer Information Bureau.

Last September, we also released a study on Internet telephony and the equipment that supports IP telephony. We know that as our networks move from analog to digital, as we move from circuit to packet switching, and as broadband technology is deployed, we will have a chance, unprecedented in the history of this industry, to make technology readily available to people with disabilities.

We are committed to seizing this chance. We are committed to delivering on the promise of equal opportunity for all Americans. And we are determined to make sure that people with disabilities will not have to break into tears of joy the next time they see products that are accessible to them, because those products will be a routine and vital part of our telecommunications economy.

- FCC -