Federal Communications Commission

The National Broadband Plan and Access for People with Cognitive Disabilities

September 16th, 2010 by Admin User

The National Broadband Plan and Access for People with Cognitive Disabilities

Remarks of Elizabeth Lyle

Tenth Annual Coleman Institute Conference

Westminister, Colorado

October 22, 2010

It is a true pleasure to be here today. I first got involved with the Coleman Institute when Dale Hatfield, the Executive Director of Silicon Flatirons, asked me to come out for a planning session that was held in July.

Dale and I worked together on accessibility issues when he was chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology at the FCC, over a decade ago.

Dale is one of my heroes. So when he asked me to fly across the country for a four-hour meeting in the middle of summer vacation, I, of course, said yes.

And I’m glad I did. I have learned a tremendous amount, not only from Bill Coleman, Clayton Lewis, David Braddock, and Enid Ablowitz – but from all the people they have brought together who are committed to empowering people with cognitive disabilities with all of the tools of the broadband age.

The partnerships that the Coleman Institute is fostering are critical to moving this endeavor forward. Accessibility and technology issues are complex, and it takes all of us – whether we are advocates, people with disabilities, parents and caregivers, technologists, policymakers, academics, and industry representatives -- to make our shared vision a reality. The “power of partnerships” is truly an apt title, and I thank you for inviting me to be part of this. You are truly making a difference.

I recently had the chance to work on the accessibility recommendations in the National Broadband Plan that the Federal Communications Commission released in March of this year.

Last year in the Recovery Act, Congress and the President charged the Commission with writing a plan to bring high-speed Internet and its benefits to all Americans.

As FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski would say, broadband is our generation’s major infrastructure challenge. It’s like roads, canals, railroads and telephones for previous generations.

Historically, it has taken years – even decades – for people with disabilities to have anything close to equal access to communications. Designers of equipment, services, and networks have often failed to consider accessibility issues in the design and development stage – and retrofit solutions are expensive.

With broadband, we have the opportunity to consider accessibility issues early in the deployment process, and enable people with disabilities, including people with cognitive disabilities, to share fully in the benefits of broadband. New technologies and innovations can bridge gaps for people with disabilities and provide opportunities that were inconceivable in the past.

Broadband allows people with disabilities to live independent lives in their communities of choice. Broadband allows people with disabilities to telecommute or run a business out of their home. Broadband also makes telerehabilitation services possible, providing long-term health and vocational support to clients in their home communities.

Broadband also allows access to self-paced on-line education classes and digital books that can be read aloud, enlarged, turned into braille, or spotlighted and read aloud simultaneously. Broadband allows people to use video phones to communicate or to develop an independent on-line community and culture that is not dependent on interpreting non-verbal and social cues.

In order to realize broadband’s potential for people with disabilities, though, we must address the barriers.

Devices, services, software, and content are often not accessible to people with disabilities. Assistive technologies are sometimes very expensive, not interoperable with the latest technologies, or are difficult to find and repair. People with disabilities also often do not get the training and support they need to use broadband technologies and services.

So how can we address these barriers? How we can make sure that people with disabilities, including people with cognitive disabilities, have full access to today’s and tomorrow’s technologies?

First, people with disabilities have to be fully engaged in the work that we are doing. When we were working on the National Broadband Plan, we held a town hall meeting, an all-day workshop with panels and a policy round table, a field event, and a policy conference that was co-sponsored by Silicon Flatirons, the American Association for People with Disabilities, and the Information Technology Innovation Foundation.

Participants in these events represented people from a wide range of disability communities. We heard not only from the communities with whom we had worked with for years – the deaf and hard of hearing and the blind and low vision communities. We heard powerful testimony from a person with an intellectual disability whose job depended on her being able to use broadband. We heard from people who use wheelchairs about the difficulty that they have navigating in some community computing centers. We heard from someone with autism how much easier it is for him to understand captioned online content.

And we used new media tools to enable us to communicate and get feedback from people all over the globe.

Hearing these stories and spreading these stories is making a difference. The actress Marlee Matlin testified at one of our field hearings that she was really distressed that after working a generation ago to bring captions to television programming that so much of programming on the web is not accessible. She told us that she was particularly upset that she could not watch herself on Dancing with the Stars on ABC’s website.
Well, we did a blog post with Marlee’s testimony and someone in the blogosphere forwarded the post to Disney, who owns ABC. Disney quickly made the commitment to caption all of their online programming, including live programming and in February of this year, they followed through on that commitment.

Open and inclusive processes that tap into new ideas and new sources of innovation make better policies. The policies in the National Broadband Plan reflect these processes.

We had three broad umbrellas of recommendations in the National Broadband Plan. I’m happy to say that has been real progress with respect to each of these recommendations.

First, the Plan recommended that the Executive Branch form a Broadband Accessibility Working Group. One of the key things we recommended was to make sure that government itself was a model of accessibility – and that it takes its own accessibility obligations to make the information and communications technology that it buys and provides to the public accessible to people with disabilities. The White House announced in July the formation of a CIO working group to do just that.

The Plan also stated that the government should consider providing public funding for cloud computing and other platforms that allow people to pull the accessibility features they need to use the internet – anytime and anywhere. We are very happy that Sue Swenson’s Interagency Council on Disability Research has taken an interest in convening government-wide meetings on this topic.

The second broad recommendation was that the FCC form an Accessibility and Innovation Initiative to promote collaborative problem solving among a diverse group of stakeholders. We will be holding field events, collaborative dialogues, and challenges – and in July, the Chairman will as part of this initiative award the Chairman’s Award for Advancements in Accessibility. The Accessibility and Innovation Initiative is being led by Pam Gregory and Jamal Mazrui – and in just a few minutes Pam, Clayton Lewis, and Gregg Vanderheiden will be talking about an exciting partnership that the FCC, the Coleman Institute, and Raising the Floor will be undertaking.

Third, the National Broadband Plan recommended that Congress and the FCC modernize accessibility laws and regulations. The plan endorsed a specific piece of then-pending legislation that would apply accessibility rules to IP-enabled communications and video programming technologies. This legislation is perhaps the most important disability legislation since the ADA, and the terrific news is that the President signed this into law earlier this month.

We are going to be extremely busy at the FCC implementing its provisions -- the statutory deadlines are tight, and the Chairman and Karen Peltz Strauss, a long-time accessibility advocate who re-joined the Commission earlier this year as Deputy Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, are marshaling resources from all over the Commission to get this done.

Finally, I want to address what we should be doing to promote full accessibility for people with disabilities through the cloud and other technological platforms.

As I hope you can gather from my remarks, there is a lot of momentum behind accessibility and technology now. This is a time of real opportunity to promote policies that will benefit people with disabilities, including those with cognitive disabilities.

We have to work together so that policymakers understand the benefits of cloud computing for people with cognitive disabilities. Break it down into manageable pieces. Start with pilot projects that can show its benefit. The technologists, the advocates, and all stakeholders have to work together and make a compelling case.

I know there is a compelling case. I am a parent of a 13 year-old who is on the autism spectrum and who has multiple learning disabilities. My son also has a lot determination and loves to learn. Not as much as he loves to play whiffleball and the wii, but he is very curious about the world around him. It has been magical to watch him connect and relate to others, after being unable to do so when he was younger.

I see technology help his life every day. Learning in a large classroom is extremely difficult for him, but he can learn online from Brain Pop. And technology helps him to show what he knows – Alphasmart is a lot easier for him to deal with than a pencil and paper.

So it doesn’t take a leap of faith for me to envision how cloud computing could help my son. I can imagine his being able to pull down a math coach to help work through a multi-step algebra problem. I can imagine his being able to pull down a social skills coach to help navigate a challenging social situation. I can imagine the benefit of being able to use a wireless device or computer that instantly understood his preferences and abilities – and conformed to his needs instead of vice-versa.

I urge all of you to seize this moment and build on the very real momentum that you are all a part of. Share your stories and share your visions. Help others to imagine a world in which technology can tap into talents and abilities that would otherwise go untapped.

Pam, Clayton, and Gregg will be discussing one way in which we would like to spur others to share their visions.

Before I turn this over to them, I would like to reiterate my thanks to the Coleman Institute for bringing us all together – to learn from each other and propel this movement forward.

And now, I’m very happy to turn this over to my colleague Pam. Thank you very much.

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