Disability rights must evolve with dynamic communications technology

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it is easy to see the impact that this groundbreaking law continues to have on American society as a whole. The ADA prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation. It also mandated the establishment of Telecommunication Devices for the Deaf (TDD)/telephone relay services, which opened the public switched telephone network to millions of people with hearing or speech disabilities. Much has been accomplished to date, but even more can and should be done. In the dynamic communications field, there is an ongoing need for Congressional legislation, followed by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulatory initiatives and enforcement.

Since the ADA’s enactment, Congress and the FCC have continued to ensure that new technological developments in communications are developed with the spirit of that law in mind—and with the force of law. For example, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 required manufacturers of telecommunications equipment and providers of telecommunications services to ensure that both equipment and services are accessible and useable by persons with disabilities, whenever possible. The FCC’s implementation of this part of the law required manufacturers and service providers to design telecommunications equipment and services with that goal in mind.

The ADA also has created positive second-order effects. For example, entrepreneurship and broadband Internet now seem inextricably linked—perhaps even more so for persons with disabilities. In general, they have a higher rate of self-employment and small business experience than people without disabilities. Consequently, broadband development has proven to be a boon to them. High-capacity wired and wireless networks deliver digital applications and content to a wide range of devices, enabling those with visual, auditory, and motor disabilities to perform a full range of work-related activities without leaving home. This empowerment—a core principle of the ADA—has had substantial impact on our nation’s economy as a whole since it has enhanced overall productivity in the workforce, generated additional tax revenues, and contributed to greater consumer spending.

The 21st Century Video Accessibility Act of 2010 is another case in point. Prior to its passage, the FCC had no legal authority to enact video description rules. For people with visual disabilities, this technology is akin to closed captioning that helps those with auditory disabilities. Today, large-market broadcast affiliates of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC, along with multichannel video program distribution systems with more than 50,000 subscribers, are required to provide video description capability.

And more recently, the FCC, acting under the Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990, expanded its existing closed-captioning rules to require that captions 1) match the spoken words in the dialogue and convey the background noises and other sounds to the fullest extent possible; 2) coincide with their corresponding spoken words and sounds and be displayed on the screen at a speed that can be read by viewers; 3) run from the beginning to the end of a program; and 4) not block other important visual content on the screen, overlap one another, or run off the edge of the video screen.

These are salutary examples of sound public policy and effective delegation of legal authority to an expert regulatory agency, with tangible long-term benefits. Equally important, they are proof positive that Congress can achieve enormously positive results when it acts with resolve in a bipartisan manner:

Republican Sen. John McCain from Arizona and Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin from Iowa were principal sponsors of the ADA. That legislation paved the way for many developments in communications accessibility. A logical next step in that legacy would be an amendment to the Communications Act that specifies legal authority for the FCC to craft open Internet rules. By enabling differentiated broadband network capabilities to benefit persons with disabilities, Congress can reaffirm its commitment to this vital segment of our population.