TDI and ADA: Leveraging 25 Years of Achieving Access

TDI hosted the 21st TDI Biennial Conference at Baltimore, otherwise known as the “Charm City.”  The conference took place during August 19-22, 2015, at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore Hotel.

Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, gave a historic keynote address in the early morning of Thursday, August 20.  In his keynote address, he acknowledged the importance of text-to-911.  He emphasized the power and importance of broadband.  He spoke about how last year in 2014, FCC adopted rules governing the quality of closed captioning in response to a petition that TDI filed in 2004.  He mentioned the recent formation of the Disability Advisory Committee (DAC, of whom TDI Executive Director Claude Stout is a co-chair).  This 40-member team of consumers, consumer groups, government and academic stakeholders, has a simple mandate:  To provide the Commission with actionable recommendations on policies to improve communications access.  Tom reiterated the word ‘actionable’.  Wheeler did not just want a debating society; he also wanted an actionable society.  Since DAC’s first meeting in March, they’ve already come up with four recommendations for FCC to consider.

Additionally, FCC also endeavors to be a leader through their practices.  FCC became the first federal agency in the USA to use broadband interactive video to allow callers to use ASL — this endeavor has seen tremendous success.  More than half of the issues raised by consumers who call the ASL video line are resolved on the spot, because of a deaf person, Robert McConnell, was hired to staff the line.  McConnell communicates in ASL with callers to get to the heart of the issue swiftly and effectively.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler

Under Wheeler’s leadership, FCC has been promoting the use of direct video communications across federal and local government agencies and businesses.  FCC has been encouraging them to harness broadband video and hire ASL users to receive calls.  Just to put this in context, and to understand what this issue is at the federal level, consider this:  the Social Security Administration receives about three million minutes a year of VRS calls.  In the broadband era, Wheeler saw no reason for Social Security or any agency that is the recipient of VRS calls to not have direct video communications.  He also added that those agencies also should hire those who are deaf or hard of hearing and are fluent in ASL to take those calls.

Wheeler spoke about how in June, he was at Gallaudet University with the administrator of the Small Business Administration (SBA), when they became the first federal agency to follow in FCC’s footsteps with their own broadband video line, so people could talk directly with the SBA about challenges that they were having with the program.  Wheeler and TDI both applauded Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet for her vision and commitment.  Further news was shared by Wheeler that the Census Bureau and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that they would also follow suit in implementing broadband video ASL line for deaf/hard of hearing ASL users to use to call in.

Wheeler pointed out it’s not just agencies that were following suit — it was also industry leaders such as Microsoft.  Jenny Lay-Flurrie of Microsoft incidentally was also in attendance at the conference, and grinned when Wheeler pointed out that Microsoft now has a Direct ASL video line.  Wheeler also mentioned that Verizon has a similar program.  Jeff Kramer of Verizon, whom was also attending the conference, smiled and nodded at this mention.  It was clear that this remarkable trend was only beginning, but was an excellent beginning with federal agencies and industry leaders jumping on board.

Wheeler however wasn’t quite done — he pulled a ‘Steve Jobs’ “One More Thing”‘ act.  Wheeler announced a new platform that FCC has been building.  Specifically, an open source, standards-based applications that works on mobile and desktop operating systems, which will allow for text, voice, and high-quality video calling into existing TRS providers.  Think of this platform as a way of providing the basic building blocks that are common to any internet-based application.  The platform will also establish a much-needed set of interoperability standards to be used by current TRS providers, ensuring seamless usability, while maintaining freedom of choice for all TRS users.  This was step one of the new platform.

“This is the future. This is the promise of broadband. The beauty of internet protocol is that it is a lingua franca, which ends silos and niche technologies. This is not functional equivalence. This is full and equal access.” — Wheeler

Step two of the new platform was to make it easy for any entity to provide direct video communications.  The challenge is that many video technologies used within the VRS network have not been compatible with video technology commercially available outside of VRS.  That’s because VRS has remained a closed system, with callers unable to call to videophones outside the system, and unable to receive video calls from individuals not on the VRS network.  Other video calling systems that are outside the VRS network tended to be also closed systems as well.  The new platform would allow those who speak with their hands and hear with their eyes to enjoy modern advancements in communication technologies while minimizing walled gardens.  This technology would enable video products to work together, so you can call whoever you want, whenever, from anywhere.

Wheeler then jumped into step three of the new platform effort, which excited him most of all.  Due to the new platform/software being open-source, it means anyone with the know-how will be able to build it in ways that can expand and enhance access.  In other words, it will be publicly available for anyone to expand on the platform with new and innovative applications.  By this time next year, even two guys and a dog in a garage will be able to hook on and create new accessible ways to send and receive communications and information.  Wheeler originally called this new platform ‘Video Access Technology Reference Platform’ or VATRP.  He renamed it to be Accessible Communications for Everyone, or ACE, platform.  Team efforts has been in progress, involving those from VTC Secure, students and professors at Gallaudet University, the National Technology Institute of the Deaf (a program of the Rochester Institute of Technology [RIT]), and TCS Associates.  Wheeler estimated that ACE would be operational within a year.  Wheeler predicted that there would even be some new ideas that will have been enabled and made operational thanks to the ACE platform.  Wheeler described how he met a deaf student at RIT who was exploring ways to leverage the internet of things to give her notifications for sounds around the house, such as when the Microsoft or washer/dryer is done, or when the water is left running.  VTC Secure is working on an app that will allow a person who is deaf-blind to use their Smartphone camera to transmit images in real-time to a call center where an assistant could return a description in Braille.

This incredible platform announced by Wheeler has intriguing possibilities, and definitely will create new jobs.  It will create a demand for deaf ASL professionals to work in call centers.  There will be growth opportunities for software development jobs.  Wheeler wrapped up his address brilliantly: “This is the future.  This is the promise of broadband.  The beauty of internet protocol is that it is a lingua franca, which ends silos and niche technologies.  This is not functional equivalence.  This is full and equal access.”  The audience erupted into applause at that.

Wheeler then played a video in where the Mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, confirmed that New York City would be implementing Direct ASL Video lines in their key offices.  This video proved to be a fitting way to end his keynote address.  That video can be seen below.

Image linking to Blasio's video