President Biden has challenged Congress to build “a fair economy that gives everybody a chance to succeed” and to “create the strongest, most resilient, innovative economy in the world.” And it looks like Congress has heeded his call.
But for deaf and hard of hearing Americans, the infrastructure challenge is even greater. We have a nationwide phone system today but it is one built almost entirely for the hearing. Emergency services can automatically locate you whenever you dial 911, but not if your language is American Sign Language (ASL). The phone gap for deaf Americans is both wide and unacceptable, including slower connections; much longer service sign-up delays – days not hours; and the inability to have one phone for calls and texting or to easily hop on Zoom for a job interview.
Simply put, communication access is a human right and not all Americans have the same access. America must do better.
Thirty years ago, President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), promising a communications system for deaf and hard of hearing Americans that would be “functionally equivalent” to what most hearing people take for granted each and every day—the ability to talk with family, friends, business colleagues, teachers, and doctors and to do so with great ease and unquestioned quality.
The ADA’s promise of functional equivalence is far from reality today for deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the United States. But, it won’t take an act of Congress to change this. Instead, it only requires the Federal Communications Commission to step up and choose to invest in the deaf community. The Commission has this very opportunity right now as part of its ongoing ratemaking proceedings continuing in the coming weeks.
Since the passage of the ADA, the Commission has run the Telecommunications Relay Service program. This program—funded by companies, not consumers—pays for sign language interpreters to relay conversations between deaf Americans and the hearing. Although once limited to slow and cumbersome telephone text TTY services, the Commission first opened the door to Video Relay Services (VRS) in 2000, allowing those who use ASL to make calls to hearing individuals seamlessly in their own language.
But the program has languished. In 2011, nine national deaf and hard of hearing consumer organizations called upon the FCC to meet the mandate of the ADA, pointing out that services like VRS did not offer deaf users the same emergency access, the same interoperability, the same technological advancements, and the same choices in equipment and software then available to hearing individuals.
ZVRS and Purple Communications have provided a video in American Sign Language interpreting this Opinion article authored by Sherri Turpin
A decade has now passed, and these goals have yet to be fulfilled. Provider rates have been slashed by 47 percent over the last decade, leaving us an industry with little competition, little consumer choice, and little provider incentive to innovate. Deaf and hard of hearing individuals have been left farther and farther behind in the digital economy. This impacts nearly every aspect of their lives: their connections with loved ones, their employment, their schooling, and their healthcare.
As my colleague Chris Wagner, our Chief Operations Officer for Customer Experience and who previously served as the President of the National Association for the Deaf (NAD), told me: “We must bridge these two worlds, the hearing world and the deaf world, providing equal communications access to all so that contributions from all American citizens, including deaf individuals, can be made and felt.”
It’s no wonder that the NAD and other consumer organizations have asked the Commission to seize the moment and “encourage innovation rather than stagnant levels of service.” That’s because they know that with proper investment, the video relay service can end the isolation of many people in the deaf community, open new doors to jobs and education, and allow full connectivity with family, friends, colleagues, and businesses—connectivity that is crucial for full independence and to unlock the vast contributions of millions of Americans.
Greg Hlibok, our Chief Legal Officer said: “I left the FCC to work in a truly blended and inclusive workforce—hearing and deaf. Our deaf workforce teaches our hearing colleagues what is needed to improve VRS so that it can become functionally equivalent, and our hearing colleagues work with us to bring to the table technology expertise and solutions that can modernize communications access for VRS users. Working together we can accomplish so much, but we need the FCC’s support to do more.”
I firmly believe the Commission views the deaf community as a worthwhile investment that will not only bring greater equity to telecommunications but also help drive economic growth for all Americans. Four years ago, the FCC helped small communications providers participate in VRS, increasing choice and competition. And last year, the FCC ensured uninterrupted relay services to the deaf community during the global pandemic, allowing more interpreters to handle VRS calls from their homes. These have been good steps but more change is needed.
Ensuring adequate compensation for VRS providers like ours is central to not only reversing this trend but most importantly delivering on the functional equivalency promise. Legacy rules, though, are denying compensation for providers to invest in 911 and other numbering technologies, denying compensation for providers to reach out to members of the deaf community who do not have service, and denying compensation for research and development to create new technologies for the deaf and hard of hearing. More broadly, these same rules do nothing to reward quality service and features—they only require providers to meet the bare minimum standard.
It’s more than time to make quality phone service for all a top priority. It’s time to put the needs of the deaf community on equal footing.
In talking about the need to invest in infrastructure, President Biden spoke of “ordinary Americans doing extraordinary things.” Having spent almost six years working day to day in a company where 70 percent of employees are deaf, I can tell you these are extraordinary Americans doing extraordinary things but it will take real investment in the community for all deaf individuals to unleash their potential.
Sherri Turpin is CEO of ZVRS and Purple Communications (ZP), a leading provider of communications solutions, including video relay technology, and interpretation services for deaf and hard of hearing individuals. Proficient in American Sign Language, Sherri is committed to the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion initiative and serves as a member of the Board of Trustees for New York School for the Deaf (NYSD) and the Foundation Board for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID). Under her leadership, ZP was recognized as a 2020 Best Place to Work for Disability Inclusion, earning a score of 100% on the Disability Equality Index (DEI), a joint initiative of the American Association of People with Disabilities and Disability: IN.