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Stearns: Help for People With Disabilities

The Internet and new technologies have transformed the way we live, work and shop. Geographic boundaries are no longer barriers. You could download a movie from India — legally, of course — sitting on a beach in Florida, while participating in a videoconference in Washington, D.C.

All of this is made possible because Congress has let the marketplace flourish by allowing consumers to decide what technologies work for them.

However, as the technological revolution speeds along, it is important to ensure that people with disabilities are not left behind. In the United States, nearly one in every five Americans has a disability.

For far too long, America has been denied the talent and the energy of individuals with disabilities. It is only right to bring the disabled into the mainstream of the American experience — bringing about full participation in the economic, social and political fabric of the nation.

Although many barriers have been torn down and more doors are open for the disabled, there remain persistent problems. All people should be afforded the opportunity to use and enjoy the amazing technology that is available. We can all agree on that point.

The question, then, becomes what is the best way to achieve this goal? Do we need more government regulation? Or do we need to allow the markets to work with as light a regulatory touch as possible? These are the questions that Congress needs to explore as it considers H.R. 3101, the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2009.

Under the Communications Act, manufacturers and carriers are already required to make telecommunications devices and services accessible to people with disabilities when doing so is “readily achievable.”

The statute also requires telephones to be hearing-aid compatible, requires telecommunications providers to help pay for operators who relay phone conversations between people with hearing or speech disabilities and people without disabilities, and requires television programming to be closed captioned.

Nevertheless, we are becoming victims of our own success. Because of the success of our deregulatory policies, many new technologies have evolved, and they do not fall within the existing statutory language.

We must find the right balance of extending the benefits of technology to people with disabilities without restricting innovation. While we have made a number of positive changes to H.R. 3101, there is still work that needs to be done.

I remain concerned about the overall scope of the bill. Even as amended by the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, of which I am the ranking member, the bill would require service providers and equipment manufactures to make each feature of each device and service accessible for each and almost every disability, unless they can demonstrate that doing so is not achievable, regardless of the extent to which they make other devices and services accessible. This does not allow the necessary flexibility providers and manufacturers need in order to innovate.

In many areas, industry is already taking the necessary steps to make certain that its products and applications are accessible to all people. The iPad, for example, has been lauded as revolutionary not just by the general public, but also by accessibility advocates because it includes breakthrough accessibility features. This suggests that the broader market could be providing better access to people with disabilities than it does today.

Conversely, Apple and others argue that if the iPad had been subject to detailed mandates, such as requirements regarding the design of raised buttons, the flat-screen device might not have made it to market.

They argue that the right approach is perhaps to establish accessibility goals but not dictate how to accomplish them. We need to allow innovation to flourish.

The goals of H.R. 3101 are certainly laudable, and we can all agree on the final destination: ensure that all people are able to take advantage of the remarkable technology that is available. Will this legislation take us there? Are there changes we might make that would better support accessibility goals and our goals of promoting innovation?

An earlier discussion draft of this legislation benefited greatly from conversations between the wireline phone industry and accessibility groups. Those discussions led to changes, supported by all sides, which are reflected in the current draft.

My hope is that ongoing discussions with other segments of the communications industry will result in similar improvements, bringing to the disabled the latest technologies and services.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) is ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet.

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