By Lise Hamlin
Director of Public Policy and State Development
May 1, 2008, Washington, D.C.: The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet held a hearing on “draft legislation enhancing access to broadband technology and services for persons with disabilities.” The draft legislation is titled, “21st Century Communications and Video Programming Accessibility Act.”
Hearing Loss Association of American and many HLAA chapters are founding members of the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT). COAT has been a champion of the draft legislation since its release in December. The nearly 200 members of COAT agree that legislation that ensures equal access to technology for people who are hard of hearing, deaf, blind and who have low vision is long overdue.
The Congressional hearing room was packed with disability advocates, industry representatives and interested parties. Spotted in the audience were many members of the COAT coalition, including representatives and members of Hearing Loss Association, Communication Services for the Deaf, the National Association of the Deaf, American Association of People with Disabilities, American Association of Deaf-Blind, Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf & Hard of Hearing, American Council of the Blind, American Foundation of the Blind, VITAC, and Snap! VRS. Also attending was I. King Jordon, past president of Gallaudet University, who was recognized and welcomed by the chair of the subcommittee, Representative Edward Markey, and by Ranking Member Cliff Sterns.
Chairman Markey set the tone, opening the hearing with comments that the regulations as they stand now are antiquated in the face of rapid advances in technology. He noted that technology is only good if we can access it, and as the population ages there will be more of us who need to find ways to access new technology.
Chairman Markey also mentioned that the resistance coming from the communications industry was “eerily similar” to opposition he faced when battling to enact the original closed-captioning law in 1990, with the help, he noted, of I. King Jordon and other disability advocates.
The chairman recalled, “We were told that mandating closed captioning would add $20 to the price of a TV set and that it was overly burdensome, would crush the industry, it would take a lifetime and a fortune to caption all the movies and television programs out there….today, not only is it indispensable to millions of individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, but closed captioning is used by immigrant families to help them learn the language and seen in sports bars across the country…and it didn’t cost remotely $20, it cost about $1 per TV.”
Members of the subcommittee who spoke indicated the draft legislation provided a way that new technology could include people, and ensure that when it comes time to access new technology, no one is left behind.
Witnesses at the hearing speaking for COAT were: Russell Harvard, deaf actor who played in the movie There Will Be Blood, Jamaal Anderson, professional football player for the Atlanta Falcons and son of Glenn Anderson, Ph.D., past chair of Gallaudet University Board of Trustees. Sergeant Major Jesse R. Acosta, U.S. Army, veteran of the war in Iraq where he was blinded while on active duty testified on behalf of the Americans Council of the Blind and who is a member of COAT.
The COAT witnesses testified with passion and a good dose of humor. They spoke of the burdens faced when accessing new technology.
- Russell Harvard recounted the problems in the early days of captioning when the close- captioned decoder boxes his family purchased often overheated, making captions unreadable for their favorite programs. That didn’t change until Congress required all televisions over 13” include a decoder chip. In the same way, the new legislation would bring Internet access by ensuring captioning on the Internet and devices smaller than 13” being able to decode the captions. For Russell Harvard, access to movies and television is not simply an issue of enjoying the same entertainment as everyone else, it’s a matter of being able to have access to the tools of his profession.
- Jamaal Anderson spoke poignantly of his recent draft onto the NFL team. Video clips of the draft selection were posted on the web, but without captions, forcing his father to find someone to act as an interpreter to watch his own son. Jamaal urged support for equal access to mainstream Internet products included in the draft legislation as well as inclusion of broadband services for Lifeline and Link-Up services, and hearing-aid-compatible telephones that connect to the Internet.
- Sergeant Major Jesse Acosta was amazed that his-30-year old Chrysler LeBaron included technology that would voice when the systems needed maintenance, but that he could not get voice access to products like DVRs and cable boxes. This, he said was “beyond me.” He felt that the legislation would be a big step forward by allowing more devices to be accessible to people who are blind or have low vision with video description, with the possibility of creating way for onscreen emergency information presented in text to be voiced, and to allow audio output for on screen menus.
Other witnesses were: Larry Goldberg, director, Media Access, WGBH Boston; K. Dane Snowden, VP, External and State Affairs, CTIA, The Wireless Association; and Ken Nakata, Director of Disability Initiatives & Government Compliance for BayFirst Solutions LLC.
- Larry Goldberg from WGBH provided videos that demonstrated captioning on the web and video description. He noted that the courts had overruled the FCC’s video description requirement, arguing that Congress hadn’t clearly stated its intention to require description. The new legislation would clarify Congress’ intent. He also noted that “many hurdles remain to make captioning of web-based media as pervasive as it is on television.” In his testimony and the questions from the members following his testimony, it was clear that market pressures often don’t help the community of people with disabilities achieve equal access.
- Dane Snowden emphasized the work the wireless industry has already done to provide access to people with disabilities. He argued against the use of the “readily achievable” as the standard in any new legislation; that the legislation should not be enforced by “private right of action” litigation (i.e., the right of individuals to bring a case to court), and that the legislation should not impose new reporting requirements on either service providers or manufacturers. He said, “As currently drafted, the proposed legislation would unnecessarily burden the industry with little countervailing benefit to the disability community.”
- Ken Nakata indicated he supported the goals of the legislation but argued against including a private right of action and he argued against holding industry to a high standard, the “undue burden” standard, to ensure that equipment and services are usable by people with disabilities.
Chairman Markey’s questions after the panel spoke focused much attention on the wireless lobby, asking carriers and device manufacturers to help him set a deadline under which to work out new standards governing communication access for people with disabilities. “It’s amazing how much can get done under a deadline,” Markey said. Snowdon, representing the wireless industry, indicated their willingness to work with the subcommittee.
At the end of day, it was clear that the subcommittee and even witnesses were aware that it was not a matter of whether this kind of legislation would move forward, but when.