Principles for a Successful IP Transition: Accessibility

The 54 million Americans with disabilities, and other vulnerable populations, must be able to make full use of broadband networks and the video and voice services that run over these networks. Last month, the Benton Foundation released The New Network Compact: Making the IP Transition Work for Vulnerable Communities. The report, written by Ted Gotsch, includes 10 interrelated principles to help policymakers guide the transition from traditional telephone service to emerging broadband networks. In our first post, we looked at the availability of affordable broadband networks throughout the country. Today we look at Accessibility. Having telecommunications services reach all Americans is part of the solution. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also has to ensure that any transition to broadband networks grants all people the ability to use those services as they want. In an increasingly technology-dependent world, there are more and greater benefits available to many communities than ever before. For people with disabilities, broadband holds tremendous potential to (1): Foster Effective Communication

  • Interpreting Revolutions: Presence of Interpreters: Remote interpreting, an innovative and effective mode of interpreting, has been developed with the assistance of high-speed communications and low-cost digital cameras. Broadband is necessary in this transaction because it provides a sharp and clear image.
  • Broadband-based video relay services (VRS): These calls connect deaf to hearing and hearing to deaf callers. They enrich daily lives because more than 80% of all Americans who are deaf have hearing parents and/or siblings, many of whom never learned to sign fluently. VRS, too, supports the participation of deaf individuals in conference calls, facilitating employment at middle and upper levels of management.
  • Peer-to-Peer signing: With the use of two-way broadband video, people with hearing disabilities are able to communicate in a more clear and visual manner. With broadband, individuals who may not be literate in e-mail or instant messaging benefit from the visual services of peer-to-peer signing.
  • Searchable Text: Broadband technology offers a practical solution for the large amounts of bandwidth that are required for text conversion to audio so that it can be navigated by someone who has vision impairments.

Expand Opportunities for Employment Many people with disabilities are unable to work because of mobility issues, hearing or vision disabilities and hostile work environments that are not accommodating to the disability community. VoIP, assistive technology devices, video services and other technological advances that broadband supports expand employment opportunities and make it easier for people with disabilities to be more productive and effective in the work place. Broadband could help to generate a larger work force which would create enormous economic benefits for the United States. An increased labor force will mean higher output for the economy as a whole and fewer citizens would have to rely on entitlement and social programs for support. Provide Substantial Health Care Benefits As broadband services continue to evolve, their impact on the disability community and health care costs is likely to be substantial and valuable. Developments like telemedicine, which make it possible for the delivery of healthcare remotely, have a huge impact for the disability community. Specialists who are geographically removed from patients can view very high-quality images, enabling them to consult on specialized care even for rural residents who have disabilities. Some of the most effective tele-medicine applications are home health monitoring and support for self-care. Health monitoring can come in the form of broadband-enabled hand-held devices that enable health practitioners to communicate with their clients at home. These devices will "conduct dialogues" with the patients, ask questions and provide health tips and reminders. In this way, doctors can monitor their patients daily and assess their need for treatment. Small portable or wearable devices are also used to automatically monitor the health of a patient and report results back to the doctor's office. In addition, patient to doctor video conferencing technologies are an effective way to save time and create independence for both patients and doctors. With high-speed video visits and remote consultation, the health professional can examine the patient, test blood pressure, monitor medication intake and observe wound healing among a host of other services. Improve the Quality of Life for People with Disabilities Broadband creates communication links, connecting people with disabilities to diverse programs and services and developing important interactions with the surrounding world. Because of broadband, people with disabilities can participate in lifelong learning, independent living and increase their social interactions.

  • Lifelong Learning: Distance learning, enabled by broadband, can fundamentally change the definition of education. Through advanced communication technologies, individuals with disabilities can earn a degree through online classes and enhance their career skills with guidance from live instructors. For those individuals with disabilities interested in other forms of lifelong learning, broadband provides a medium for self-education and personal research through assistive devices and services. Education and lifelong e-learning opportunities provide engaging mental stimulation and a sense of self-reliance. Yet, broadband is needed for valuable e-learning so that it can be conducted in various forms including video or other rich multimedia applications.
  • Independent Living: Individuals with disabilities gain immense freedom when they have access to broadband. It enables them to live independently by supporting their daily activities and keeping them closely connected to the outside world. In addition, tele-presence, or having a "continuous window open into another space" drastically improves capabilities for independent living with the option to be online at all times.
  • Social Interactions: Whether due to physical or environmental barriers, individuals with disabilities can be disconnected for long periods of time. With high-speed broadband access, people with disabilities could participate in online dialogues and make long-lasting friendships. Also, they could communicate frequently with friends and family in various text and video platforms, enhancing the emotional bandwidth between loved ones. Lastly, broadband would provide individuals with disabilities the opportunity to participate more fluidly in civic activities, like attending town meetings.

Karen Peltz Strauss, Deputy Bureau Chief of the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, said that, for people with certain disabilities, the phone and Internet are a lifeline to the rest of the world. That’s why access -- be it video, texting or voice -- is even more critical for them. “It levels the playing field for those with disabilities,” she said. She also commented that the issue is a priority for the agency, noting that it has either adopted or initiated 10 rules during the past three years in an effort to implement the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act. “That reflects on the Commission’s strong commitment that all Americans have access to broadband networks,” she said. Advocates for accessibility expressed concern over price, as many who might experience accessibility challenges are low-income. Everyone, whether a person with a disability, a senior citizen or a non-native English speaker, has something to gain from improved networks. However, they may need some assistance in realizing such gains. Olivia Wein of the National Consumer Law Center said it is important for the FCC to ensure that vulnerable populations have the opportunity to “enjoy the facilities many enjoy.” Of course, part of ensuring accessibility will be educating different populations on the changes the IP transition may bring. Several advocates said that is especially true for seniors, who are used to using the phone they have and are less technologically inclined than other populations. As a result, these advocates emphasized the importance of including the elderly in any pilot programs that test the transition. Part of the challenge will be teaching seniors to overcome negative preconceptions they might have about new technology. “The most important thing we can do … is to make sure they use elders in tests,” said Tobey Dichter, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Generations on Line. “For example, the new tablet tutorial we just developed included 30 multi-centered usability studies of older adults – producing completely unexpected results.” Explaining the process is also an important component for seniors, said Tom Kamber of Older Adults Technology Services. “It is really important during the IP transition to roll out education materials,” he said. “Let’s roll out … a balanced and information-based education program to help them [i.e., older adults] understand the IP program.” There are also legitimate worries when it comes to health monitoring. These services are often dependent on the PSTN, and as residents of Fire Island temporarily found out, the infirm can be left without a way to be observed remotely if the wireline network is replaced with only a wireless one.

Notes: 1) Bowe, Frank G. Universal Service and the Disability Community: The Need for Ubiquitous Broadband Deployment. Benton Foundation. (