Protect Equity and Inclusion for Deaf Americans
In 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) —bipartisan, landmark legislation that affirmed the right of Americans with disabilities, like me, to fully participate in our communities. Like other civil rights laws that came before it, the ADA reinforced that our nation’s founding ideals — chief among them equality, independence and self-determination — are not a given, but rather a goal toward which we must continuously strive.
For me and so many deaf Americans, key to achieving these ideals is the ability to effectively communicate. That’s why, on the 25th anniversary of the ADA in 2015, I wrote about the importance of ensuring that the federally regulated Video Relay Service (VRS), which many of us rely on to do so, be properly supported in order to keep pace with advances in telecommunications for all Americans.
Unfortunately, six years on, the gap in equity — or “functional equivalence” in the legal parlance of the ADA — has only widened.
For those unfamiliar, VRS allows someone who uses American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate with a hearing person using a phone. How it works is fairly simple. Through a special videophone or, more recently, a mobile application, the deaf person establishes a visual connection with an interpreter, who then facilitates the telephone conversation by calling a hearing person and interpreting what that person says to the deaf person and voicing what the deaf person signs back. A version called VCO (voice carry over) is the same except that a deaf person can choose to speak instead of sign.
Using a phone is something most people do every day without a second thought, and thanks to VRS, I’m one of them. But it wasn’t always that way. I became deaf in 1965 at the age of 21. For literally decades after, I virtually never used a phone, because I couldn’t. Until the ADA was passed, there was no law saying I had the right to use a phone, despite it being an essential tool for not only working and communicating with family and friends, but also accessing emergency and other essential services. Before VRS, there was technology through which relayed conversations were typed, but it was clumsy at best with significant delays.
Even when serving as President of Gallaudet University, I rarely used a phone independently, because I had interpreting staff to assist. But at home, I had to rely on my wife to make calls, for instance, when coordinating everyday activities or doctors’ appointments or prescription refills. We made it work, but it undermined my independence and created an added burden for her.
The advent of — and initial advancements in — VRS in the early 2000s changed all that. But recent and potential upcoming actions by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) threaten its future.
In recent years, sharp cuts in payments to VRS providers to handle and interpret VRS calls has led to diminishing quality. Wait time between entering a phone number and being connected to an interpreter has increased. The quality of interpreting is not what it used to be or should be. Exacerbating this problem is the fact that research-and-development expenses cannot be counted among the costs of providing the service, an approach that serves to disincentivize innovation.
To stop this downhill trajectory, the FCC should extend the freeze of the current rate — which will expire in December — for two years. This will allow the FCC to accurately assess costs and demand in the post-pandemic environment. The FCC can also use this time to update rules and regulations to realign with the mandate to deliver functional equivalence, because the pandemic has also brought to light significant inequities.
Indeed, innovation to meet this mandate must be the program’s primary focus going forward. Innovation and improvements must continue as technologies advance to make communication easier and more effective. Just one example is integration with video conferencing — an increasingly common feature of daily life for so many of us over the past year and a half. I serve on the boards of several organizations, and frequently I’m the only deaf person among the group. To participate in virtual meetings, I sometimes use VRS to access a voice bridge. But this requires two devices: I access the meeting on my main computer’s monitor and pull up VRS using a tablet, which I then station under my monitor. As a result, I’m most often looking off-screen, making it more difficult to watch a visual presentation. At best, I appear distracted; at worst, I’ve been accused of nodding off. I would be a better director if my video conference calls were the same as they are for the other directors.
The experience is different for me than other participants. With more research and development, it can be improved and made more equivalent. This would have benefits at both work and play. For instance, I look forward to the day I can call my son and his family independently, see them and communicate effectively. For now, we can use apps like FaceTime and Skype, but my wife has to interpret because there is no integration with VRS.
It’s important to consider that VRS serves not only hundreds of thousands of Americans who are deaf, but also millions of hearing friends and family, colleagues and community members. Sure, I benefit when I call a restaurant to order take out, or my local hardware store to see if it has something in stock, but so do the businesses I patronize. And needless to say, VRS — and the quality of its service — can be critical, even lifesaving, when it comes to health care and emergency situations.
Today, the FCC has the opportunity to reform VRS, and I encourage it to do so. It’s the right thing to do for deaf Americans and hearing Americans. It’s the smart thing to do for innovation. It’s also the law.
The signing of the ADA was not an end, but rather a beginning, a promise. Upholding that promise requires us, as a nation, to continually consider how to advance in an ever-changing world. The creation of VRS itself was a great example of this. We must ensure now that it grows and advances alongside an the ever-evolving communications system.
I. King Jordan was the first deaf president of Gallaudet University, serving from 1988 to 2006. He also co-founded the American Association of People with Disabilities and, among other roles, served as vice chairman of the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.