FCC needs to help services for the deaf catch up to videoconferencing tech

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The proudest moment of my career was when, just before the Senate gave final approval for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in July 1990, I had the honor of standing on the chamber’s floor and publicly thanking the person who drove me to champion it — my older brother Frank. I did this using American Sign Language (ASL), for the simple reason that I wanted Frank, who was deaf, to understand me.

The ADA was a promise of full inclusion to Frank, and to all Americans with all types of disabilities, and although I retired from the Senate in 2015, my commitment to delivering on that promise — the basis of which is equal opportunity — remains unchanged. This includes upholding the ADA’s affirmation that people with disabilities have the right to access our nation’s telecommunications systems, an especially critical issue for Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Indeed, the passage of the ADA ushered in a new era of innovation in telecommunications access. After the law went into effect, the establishment of a nationwide system of telecommunications relay services (TRS) opened new lines of communication for Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing, in turn increasing opportunities for them to work, play and participate in all aspects of community life.

Among these innovations was video relay service (VRS), a service through which someone who uses ASL can communicate by telephone with a hearing person. VRS launched in 2003, and that year I had the honor of demonstrating it for my congressional colleagues by communicating with actress Marlee Matlin, who is deaf and uses ASL, while I was on Capitol Hill and she was in Los Angeles. In the years shortly after, VRS, and early advancements in the technology behind it, helped transform the lives of many Americans.

Unfortunately, in more recent years, VRS has not kept pace with the advancements we’ve seen in telecommunications for hearing Americans, and the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the disparities. Cuts in compensation rates to VRS providers have led to problems, among them longer wait times and a narrower pool of skilled interpreters, according to regular users of the system. This runs counter to the ADA’s “functional equivalence” mandate, which, in layman’s terms, promises parity in accessing telecommunications services for people with disabilities.

Now, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates VRS (along with other forms of TRS), has the chance to reverse this trend. This starts with freezing the current compensation rate to VRS providers, rather than letting it expire in December, as it’s currently scheduled to do. This freeze is needed to allow more time to gauge the landscape post-pandemic, including the costs of providing the service. This additional time is also needed to examine the rules and regulations governing the system to ensure they first and foremost focus on meeting the ADA’s functional equivalence mandate.

Key to this is letting expenses put toward research and development be included among the costs of providing the service. Currently they’re not, an oversight that has served to disincentivize the very type of innovative thinking that led to the development of VRS in the first place. As just one example, VRS is not yet compatible with the various videoconferencing platforms that have become so popular for both professional and personal communications, especially recently. To deliver on the promise of the ADA, VRS providers must continually adapt and innovate in response to advancements in telecommunications technology.

Many employment opportunities in the future for hearing impaired individuals will depend on access to a “functional equivalent” telecommunications system that innovates and updates continually to provide these opportunities. The FCC must ensure this.

Tom Harkin served as a U.S. Senator from Iowa from 1985 to 2015. During his tenure, he authored the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and was its chief sponsor in the Senate.

Tags Americans with Disabilities Act Assistive technology Deaf and hard of hearing Deafness FCC Federal Communications Commission Sign language Technology Telecommunications Telecommunications relay service Tom Harkin Video relay service VRS

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