The struggle of people who are deaf and hard of hearing to gain meaningful access to telecommunications products and services over the past three decades is a complex and poignant story. Like other major movements to advance human rights, it is a story of great triumphs and painful defeats; headline-grabbing drama and behind-the-scenes deal-making; a few celebrated leaders, and many, many, unsung heroes. At last, we have a comprehensive chronicle of this movement.
This book is written by one of America’s most prominent advocates for disability access. During her remarkable career, Karen Peltz Strauss has worked in and out of government to champion the rights of people who are deaf and hard of hearing. As a disability rights leader, she has had a role in every major breakthrough regarding telecommunications access for more than the past twenty years: from access to basic telephone service over TTYs, telecommunications relay services, hearing aid compatibility, closed captioning, and now high-speed broadband networks. She and countless numbers of deaf and hard of hearing advocates around the country have brought about changes that have revolutionized the way that deaf and hard of hearing people communicate with each other and the rest of the world.
This book examines how and why these changes took place when they did. In chronicling the forty-year history of the access movement, it provides an insider’s perspective on how these successes were achieved, including strategies used and compromises made. It analyzes the forces within the deaf community that led to these developments, and the fascinating interplay of politics, policy and marketplace pressures.
Having served as general counsel and then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission during the administration of President Bill Clinton, much of this history has special resonance for me. Indeed, Karen Peltz Strauss and I served together at the FCC and worked side by side to significantly expand telecommunications access in a number of areas, including relay services (by authorizing video relay services, speech-to-speech relay services, and 711 dialing access), closed captioning (by requiring visual access to emergency television programming and extending the captioning mandates to digital TV), and hearing aid compatibility (by initiating the rulemaking that ultimately extended this mandate to digital wireless phones). The FCC’s accomplishments during my tenure would not have been possible without her leadership, insights, and, above all, her credibility within the deaf and hard of hearing community.
This is a story that needs to be told. Most Americans have become aware of changes in the laws during the 1990s that made the physical world more accessible for people with disabilities. The general public is now very familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act—the groundbreaking legislation enacted in 1990 that required ramps on public buildings and curb cuts in streets. Yet the story of the movement for disability access to the electronic, or virtual world, has never comprehensively been told.
With the advent of the Internet, increasingly Americans live and work in a virtual world. It is not a world of bricks and mortar, ramps and curb cuts. It is a world made possible by trillions upon trillions of digital bits that move at the speed of light over fiber-optic cables and through the airwaves. It is an exquisitely complex world that it is every bit as real as the physical world. And it is just as important, because those who have access to this world and can navigate through it with ease have a huge advantage in our society and in our economy. Americans routinely go to the virtual world to buy products and services, to get college degrees, and to find jobs. They go there to seek medical care. They go there to shop and to socialize and to play games. Many even go there to find romance.
Notwithstanding the extraordinary technological gains made over the past decades, too many Americans with disabilities are still being denied access to communication that is only available through this virtual world. These Americans need access to technology that can bring them jobs and information and education in ways undreamed of just a few years ago. A principal challenge for leaders in our information-age economy is to make sure that wondrous new technologies uplift the lives of every American and bring us together—regardless of age or ability.
Martin Luther King, Jr., once said that “the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” The history told in this book chronicles the struggles of some 28 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing to find justice in a society that for too long has ignored their basic right to communicate using our nation’s telecommunications networks. Much has been accomplished, but the struggle is far from over. The lessons learned in the past forty years and revealed in the pages of this book offer a compelling roadmap to those who are willing to take up this challenge in the decades to come.
William E. Kennard
Chairman, Federal Communications Commission