A Stellar Public Servant
Tuesday, January 8, 2019
A Stellar Public Servant
A legend is leaving the Federal Communications Commission as the new year begins. Her name is Karen Peltz Strauss. Some of you may not have heard of her, but to the nation’s disabilities communities, she is a hero. She achieved this status the old-fashioned way. She earned it.
My first speech as a newly-minted Commissioner at the FCC in the summer of 2001 was to the Telecommunications for the Deaf Conference in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Karen Peltz Strauss shepherded me through this event, even coaching me on how to do some basic signing. But it was at a gathering with conference participants the evening before where I quickly realized that the issues affecting our disabilities communities were going to be a high priority for me as I embarked on my FCC career. And so they were for the nearly eleven years that followed.
What I saw that night as we talked were deaf and hard-of-hearing people bursting with enthusiasm to make a contribution to our country’s communications policies—not just to benefit themselves, but to help us as a nation move forward together. The innovative ideas they shared with me, their determination to be an integral part of the policy-making process, and the general sparkle of their conversation made a lasting impression on me.
When I got back to Washington, DC, I asked Karen to tutor me on the full range of disability issues. I picked the right person. She had been working these issues since the 1980s, not just on the communications front, but on civil rights matters, including access to health care, employment, housing, and others too numerous to include here. She was already nationally-known among disability advocates as one of the country’s leading disability rights attorneys even before she began the first of two stints at the FCC in 1999. (She left the Commission in 2001 but returned in 2010 for her second assignment which has just ended)
My focus at the FCC was, of course, on communications—issues such as access to evolving technologies, hearing aid compatibility, emergency access, real-time texting, access to multimedia, relay service, closed captioning, the transition to the internet, and finding more ways for the Commission to inform itself on the needs of over 50 million citizens who constitute the various disability communities.
Even before joining the FCC, Karen had been instrumental in formulating critical legislation like Title IV of the Americans with Disabilities Act (requiring telephone relay services) and Sections 255 and 713 of the Communications Act, which mandated telecommunications access and television captioning. She never stopped. As part of the effort to enact the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), she founded a coalition of some 300 national and regional organizations whose grassroots efforts were essential to passage of this historic legislation. Karen always knew not just what needed to be done, but how to get it done.
Karen’s commitment to people who are visually impaired and blind has been equally noteworthy. She was in the vanguard of the effort to create the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program that allocates $10 million annually for the distribution of free communications equipment to low-income people who are both blind and deaf. Think how much this program has changed the lives of thousands of deaf-blind people who before this lacked access to what are certainly essentials of 21st-century life.
In over 40 years in Washington, I have been privileged to work with many brilliant public servants. Karen Peltz Strauss is in the top-most tier of these incredibly able people. Her star shines brightly in the public service firmament. She came to the agency with a goal, she never wavered from that goal, and she achieved an awesome number of accomplishments that made millions of lives better. What better accolade than that a person helped make people’s lives better?
Karen had help along the way, of course, and her immensely talented Disability Rights Office at the FCC deserves huge credit for helping her achieve so much. We look to this Office to continue her work and, importantly, we look to the Commission to provide the resources this Office needs to do so. Karen also helped create the Commission’s Disability Advisory Committee, whose members have done path-breaking work in an exemplary public-private partnering that will hopefully continue its essential work in the years ahead. This body provides a valuable forum for the exchange of ideas among consumer stakeholders, industry, and researchers. It’s the kind of thing that helps make the government, and the nation, work.
The world of telecom and media changes so rapidly that new innovations seem to come our way just about every day. The people who are affected by these changes need to be fully informed about them; more importantly, their voices need to be heard by industry as those innovations are being developed. Many companies are doing a better job on this than they used to, but there are still major firms who are so proprietary that they don’t talk to anyone outside their own insulated offices as they develop new products and services. How much better it is when product and service innovators consult and gather input from individuals who have hearing and seeing challenges before new offerings are released, rather than have to go back and rework them after avoidable glitches appear.
I said at my 2001 Sioux Falls speech that access to modern communications is a civil right. No one can be a functioning citizen in this modern age if they are limited in their access to the tools of telecommunications or to the platforms that now carry so much of our civic dialogue. Every American, those with and without disability challenges, must have this access. Rights must grow as nations grow and as history unfolds. We need a stronger affirmation of this from our leaders—and from each of us as citizens. Karen has helped show the way.
So, my friend Karen, Godspeed on the road ahead. I know you will continue to think and innovate and lead in the worthy causes that have motivated your distinguished career. While some may boast they are proud to shut government down, we owe you, who showed what government can do to improve lives, our eternal thanks. Your star will long shine in our firmament.
Michael Copps served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from May 2001 to December 2011 and was the FCC's Acting Chairman from January to June 2009. His years at the Commission have been highlighted by his strong defense of "the public interest"; outreach to what he calls "non-traditional stakeholders" in the decisions of the FCC, particularly minorities, Native Americans and the various disabilities communities; and actions to stem the tide of what he regards as excessive consolidation in the nation's media and telecommunications industries. In 2012, former Commissioner Copps joined Common Cause to lead its Media and Democracy Reform Initiative. Common Cause is a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization founded in 1970 by John Gardner as a vehicle for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest.
Benton, a non-profit, operating foundation, believes that communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities to bridge our divides. Our goal is to bring open, affordable, high-capacity broadband to all people in the U.S. to ensure a thriving democracy.
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