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Telecommunications for the Deaf Updates

Telecommunications for the Deaf Updates
September 9, 2015 David Bahar

The biennial conference of Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Inc. (TDI) took place August 19–22.

Fortunately, unlike the 2013 conference, this year’s did not take place during a government shutdown, enabling a large Federal Communications Commission (FCC) presence that translated into multiple workshops detailing disability access rule-making currently underway at the FCC.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler gave the keynote address on the first day of the conference, revealing that the FCC has created a new name for the staid-sounding Video Access Technology Reference Platform: Accessible Communications for Everyone (ACE). ACE, for the uninitiated, is essentially an open source video endpoint that works on Mac, Windows, Android and iOS. Along with the name change, a significant announcement was made through playback of a video of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio stating the City of New York’s intention to implement ACE. While light on details, the announcement was welcome; widespread adoption of ACE should have positive far-reaching benefits for deaf and hard of hearing communities across the U.S.

I was able to attend a workshop that focused on the headway being made in captioning quality on television, as well as one where representatives of all six video relay service (VRS) providers gave updates on their progress in achieving functional equivalency. Separately from the workshops, there were two FCC-led town hall sessions: one with a panel of FCC staff discussing the development of their various rulemaking processes implementing Title I of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), and one with a smaller FCC panel discussing their progress on implementing Title II of the CVAA.

Finally, Eve Hill of the Department of Justice (DOJ) gave a presentation outlining the progress the DOJ has made with respect to disability access in the 25 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Significant progress has been made, and most were touched upon during Ms. Hill’s presentation. However, I noted a glaring omission in the list of issues Ms. Hill touched upon: access to 911 services. This is an area that has—very unfortunately—seen serious regression since 1990.

Indeed, in 1990 when the ADA was passed, public safety answering points (PSAPs) were required to directly receive TTY calls without relying on relay services. In fact, Title II of the ADA prohibits PSAPs from relying on relay services, but with the decline in TTY usage and the proliferation of newer forms of relay service (such as VRS and IP relay), TTYs have, in large part, gone out of vogue. This has left a large swath of deaf and hard of hearing people with only one way to access 911 that clashes with the ADA mandate: indirectly, through relay services.

The Emergency Access Advisory Committee (EAAC), the formation of which was required by Congress in the CVAA, ultimately stated that ideal communications with 911 eliminates third parties sitting between 911 callers and PSAPs, by providing direct connection of callers to PSAPs. For those who are Deaf and are fluent in ASL, EAAC found that the ideal connection was through a direct video and text link to an ASL-fluent dispatcher.

The conference was very educational, and it is gratifying to see so much progress being made in raising the bar with accessibility. But, I would have liked to hear more about what is being done today to address the 911 problem. This needs to be a priority, but unfortunately at present the DOJ is taking a position – more or less – of “no comment”, despite the requirements of the ADA and the recommendations of the EAAC. Until headway can be made with the DOJ, CSD will publicly advocate for direct video access to PSAPs, in line with the recommendations made by the EAAC.