FCC Townhall Addresses Broadband Opportunities for Individuals with Disabilities

On August 20, 2009, the Federal Communications Commission held a town hall-style discussion on broadband and its accessibility for people with disabilities. Blair Levin, Executive Director of the FCC's National Broadband Plan efforts, led the event, directing questions to an audience of people with disabilities, advocates for people with disabilities, service providers, and other groups.

Wordle created from this workshop's transcript:

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said, "I am here to listen and learn, but am delighted to see so many old friends who've worked so long and hard on disability access. Glad this meeting is happening and that Blair is moderating - shows the importance FCC is placing on disability rights. Everyone needs to be able to enjoy the benefits of broadband, especially people with disabilities."

Levin said that the National Broadband Plan is one of the most important initiatives at the FCC. Congress required that the plan seek to ensure that all Americans have access. But there is an obvious digital exclusion problem -- not having access to broadband will deprive a person of benefits. Broadband can be a platform for inclusion of people with disabilities -- a remedy to low employment rates, a tool to level the playing field. Currently just 30% of people with disabilities have access to broadband. Broadband provides great opportunity for communities that have been excluded geographically and physically. Need to consider people with disabilities when we develop applications and tools to get the best of broadband. Lots of work to do we need facts, data and the benefit of your experience on what works and what won't.

The first FCC question was "What challenges are faced in making products accessible to people with disabilities?

Answer: One of the problems we faced is with web pages and accessibility. Assisted technology to help with web page. Price becomes a factor. Definition of accessible. Next generation of web technologies will require only the best assisted technology, which aren't available to all. How do we address this? How do we make sure that everything on the web is accessible? Best solution is universal design - access is built right into the architecture and design of the software. This is the only way to ensure a level playing field. How do we make sure this can happen­create a synergy between the technology.

Second FCC question: Is this about the devices, or the software? What are the trade offs? How de we analyze where the requirement should be - at the network level, the device level, etc.?

Answer: We first thought to build everything into the network itself, the Internet, so that it's available to everyone. But in discussions with companies, we found that it needs to be built into the devices as well. There are ways of doing this now without having to install anything special on individual computers.

FCC Question: Voice commands?

Answer: Newer computers now have voice technology built into them. This is natural evolution - keyboard to mouse -- Now mouse to voice. Need to be sure that part of the infrastructure to allow both voice and manual.

Commissioner Copps asked: "How ambitious an initiative would this be? How much would it cost?"

Answer: This is very ambitious - we're trying to change the order of things. We've always built things first and then went back to make them work for people with disabilities. if the systems were originally set up to provide access, things would have flowed better. Including people with disabilities in the original design would have been very useful. Public safety example. Building accessibility into the infrastructure at the start is the better route. Education analogy. Basic level of accessibility, then a second layer. This ensures that everyone at least gets the basics. Assisted Technology field is a bit cautious. Worried about sustainability as a business . Other countries have tackled this problem. Quality of assisted tech is spotty.

Jim Tobias said, "We don't know much about people with disabilities adoption patterns. Much of disabilities go undiagnosed or untreated. Need to get a better handle on that."

Mary Brunner said, "Challenge and strategy. Big challenge for manufacturers -interoperability with so many devices. Accessibility features may change from generation to generation of devices. Another issue is the breadth of the needs that have to be addressed with people with disabilities. Understanding that breadth is new learning for any engineer in this field. The industry has gone a long way, but still have a long way to go. Aging population increases the need. Health uses increase the need for bb. Certain features ion a device might be help one disability but not another. Working on standards. Global warming. Public safety.

FCC Question: Broadband services at the point of sale - are they easy to access and understand?

Answer from Verizon rep: Point of sale - there are offices on both coasts working on issues for people with disabilities. Work with customers who have a variety of disabilities, Web site is accessible to make sure customers get the help they need.

Rebecca La Duke asked, "What is being done to help people with disabilities work with Blackberries, since they're the way of the future?"

FCC Question: This is targeted to consumers. The Internet does not discriminate. What challenges are there in today's marketplace? What needs are unmet? What features are lacking?

Rosalind Crawford, COATS representative: "We appreciate attention of the FCC to include people with disabilities in this discussion. Impact of broadband on the lives of people with disabilities. People with disabilities have the same problems as others in accessing broadband. Assisted tech needs to be made more affordable. Make sure everyone can afford.

FCC Question: Are there job training efforts directed at people with disabilities? With job training moving more online, are there things we can change so that some of the money that supports that could also pay for broadband?

Crawford: Vocational education doesn't provide broadband to the home, and even now doesn't have enough funding. Broadband funding (BTOP funds) should go to this. Hope FCC provides guidance to NTIA.

FCC Question: From the perspective of the consumer, should broadband access be included in public funds that a person might be receiving?

Rosalind Crawford: "I agree. Lifeline and Linkup funds should be used to help defray bb costs. FCC needs to allow this. Individuals need this flexibility."

Karen Peltz Strauss added that Lifeline and Linkup should also be used to reduce the cost of equipment. She said we need to address the challenge of the blind because equipment is highly expensive. Barriers include devices that have built-in barriers for people with limited vision and dexterity, and non-inclusion of captions and video descriptions.

Question: How should adoption by people with disabilities be measured? What benchmarks?

Larry Goldberg said that benchmarks are hard because people aren't using all of the features they have access to. Network-based services will help solve this - serving everyone equally at the same time.

FCC Question: Is it possible to create a list of issues? Affordability issues?

Mary Brunner replied that the biggest concerns of the industry is interoperability. Range of choices with assisted technology is also a challenge. Complexity of some assisted tech devices affect this.

Another participant said that people with disabilities tend to lag 10-20 years behind the rest of the population. Key is the interoperability issue; openness is the answer. Kindle is an example of a closed device. Need to build access into all new devices and software from the start.

Marcie Roth brought up emergency and disaster related issues including truly interoperable communications in emergency situations. NG911 is being developed - gives everyone access to emergency responders. Broadband will help evacuation efforts. Accessibility issues are being considered as NG911 is being developed.

FCC Question: Major tech advances on the horizon to drive increased use of bb for people with disabilities?

Larry Goldberg said auto speech recognition is not yet ready, but people are working on it. Network based services are being developed, but it's a small marketplace. Government. investment is required to drive innovation. There are significant amounts of captioned video available through FCC regulations that can be repurposed for web video. Social media and entertainment - huge gaps in access. Markey's bill addresses this to some degree, but not YouTube or user-generated media.

Blair Levin asked, "Why 5 years away?"

Goldberg answered that for decades major high tech has wanted to tackle this issue - accuracy is the issue. Engineering and science issue - difficult engineering problem.

FCC Question: What applications are most important to people with disabilities?

Answers: Closed captioning. Employment - telework. Healthcare­telemedicine, mental health problems. E911 operators needed. Two-way live video communications.

Jennifer Simpson said the principle of inclusion needs to be in place as the National Broadband Plan is written.

FCC question: How do we make the principle of inclusion meaningful? How do we make it operational?

Larry Goldberg answered that the best way drive adoption is to make applications relevant. Need to make sure all new applications especially in health care include accessibility. Requiring Disability Impact Statement from deployers of broadband and services.

Cheryl: How do we measure telework?

Chuck Wilster of the Telework Coalition said he works with government agencies on issues for people with disabilities - transportation is major issue for employment - telework is an answer. Bring the job to the person at home.

FCC Question: Do we need additional regulation to make broadband accessible to people with disabilities? If so, is Markey's bill effective? Point to point video access issue - security concerns.

Karen Peltz Strauss said COATS worked with Rep Markey on this bill. Earlier laws didn't apply to new technology and broadband. As tech moves forward, people with disabilities are left behind. Rep Markey's law tries to get ahead of the curve - having accessibility keep pace with tech innovation.

Rosalind Crawford said one need is for the Department of Justice to enforce the Americans With Disabilities Act with businesses online that provide goods and services. Enforcement of existing laws needs to be stepped up.

FCC Question: What role can industry associations play?

Rebecca Schwartz answered: Standards development can be helpful. If the FCC sees a trend in problems with personal assisted tech devices. Lack of communication is a problem between vendors and customers.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski spoke about the importance of this discussion. Providing opportunities for people with disabilities is a key priority for this Administration. He noted his own father's work as a mechanical engineer to help blind people read. Core lesson is the power of communications to transform lives for the better. He then introduced Kareem Dale, the Special Assistant to the President for Disability Issues.

Dale said the critical issue is how do we go about bringing the changes necessary for people with disabilities. Start with people - appoint the right people in the right position to carry out the president's agenda for people with disabilities. White House team: Paul Miller is charged with employing people with disabilities across government.; Jeff Crowley working on policy; Dale -- office of public engagement working on outreach with people with disabilities.

By Kevin Taglang.