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FCC: Don’t Forget About the Americans With Disabilities Act | Commentary

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This landmark law, authored by Sen. Tom Harkin and signed by President George Bush, sets the United States apart from the rest of the world. No other nation provides the protections and accommodations for people with disabilities that the United States does. This is something for which every American can be proud.

As a deaf American, I am especially proud. It’s almost impossible for me to list the ways in which the ADA has changed my life for the better. I have access today that I never dreamed of before the ADA. I also realize we must be constantly vigilant and that the ADA must keep pace with the times.

For me, this is especially important in the area of telecommunications.

Perhaps the most significant change in my life has been my ability to use the telephone. Before the ADA and before the introduction of video relay service, my only, very occasional, use of the phone was to use my teletypewriter, or TTY, to call another individual with a TTY. Today, using VRS with a videophone and, more recently, with a mobile application, I can communicate with anyone over the telephone through an interpreter. All people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing who use American Sign Language can benefit from this service. The deaf person signs to the interpreter, who speaks to the hearing person being called and then signs back to the deaf person what the hearing person says. VRS has created a more level playing field for people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing, significantly increasing opportunities for independence and employment.

Despite the progress and potential of VRS, the future is not promising.

In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission adopted an aggressive schedule for reducing the payments VRS providers receive for handling and interpreting VRS calls. Just partway through the planned cuts, all six VRS providers recently told the FCC that continued rate cuts will threaten VRS by driving more ASL interpreters out of VRS and reducing service quality and support.

Interpreters are at the core of VRS. These highly skilled individuals simultaneously interpret between ASL and English or Spanish, allowing VRS to exist. But the continuing rate cuts force providers to get more interpreting minutes out of every interpreting hour. Because interpreters can earn more in community interpreting, they are leaving VRS. As the more highly skilled interpreters opt out of VRS, the quality of VRS for deaf consumers necessarily declines.

Further, as VRS providers seek to cut costs, innovation and investment in improved VRS are also lagging. For years, deaf consumers have asked the FCC to permit VRS companies to provide specialized interpreters for calls that require specific skills, such as medical or legal calls. Similarly, some deaf consumers would benefit from the increased use of deaf interpreters to bridge communication between them and the VRS interpreter. However, such services add costs.

These issues go to the heart of the ADA’s equal access mandate, which requires that deaf consumers have access to telecommunication services that are “functionally equivalent” to those provided to hearing people. Functionally equivalent service simply can’t happen when the rates are continually reduced.

The six U.S. VRS providers took unprecedented action recently. They proposed the FCC call a timeout on further rate reductions and adopt more stringent requirements on the speed with which calls are answered and initiate trials of skills-based VRS and greater use of deaf interpreters. They also made recommendations to ensure that enhanced service offerings don’t overwork interpreters. Deaf consumer groups and the registry body for interpreters have endorsed this as a sound approach to preserving high quality, functionally equivalent VRS.

As a long time consumer of VRS, I am pleased to see the cooperation among VRS providers, deaf consumer groups and interpreter organizations that produced a unified and broadly supported proposal to the FCC. This level of cooperation is unmatched in the history of VRS — perhaps, in part, due to what they learned from past experience. In 2013, the FCC implemented steep rate cuts to IP Relay, another form of telecommunications relay services for people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing. That service was decimated.

This cannot happen to VRS.

VRS is far more important to signing deaf consumers and much closer to functionally equivalent than IP Relay. For deaf people like me, VRS is truly one of the great success stories of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I hope it stays that way.

I. King Jordan was the first deaf president of Gallaudet University, serving from 1988 to 2006. President George Bush appointed him to serve as vice chairman of the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities; he was reappointed to that position by President Bill Clinton. He is a co-founder of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

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