New Regulations, New Opportunities: Meeting the Challenge of Access for the Blind

by Dale N. Hatfield

From the Editor: Dale Hatfield is Chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology of the Federal Communications Commission.

The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Bill Kennard, apologizes that his schedule did not permit him to participate in your conference this year. I will have more to say about Chairman Kennard's personal interest and leadership role in disabilities access in a few moments. But I want to mention at the outset that it was the Chairman's vision of inclusiveness--and commitment to community in the broadest sense--which attracted me back to government from the private sector. I also feel very passionately about these same issues, and I am very honored that you have asked me to speak to you today. However, since I am not the Chairman, I do need to offer the standard caveat that my remarks here this morning represent my own views and hence they do not necessarily reflect the views of any individual Commissioner, the Commission, or any other Commission staff member.

I will divide my remarks into three parts. First, since this conference deals with technology and since my responsibilities are in the engineering area at the Commission, I will offer some brief observations about the overall trends in telecommunications technology. I will also discuss the impact of these trends in ensuring that telecommunications services and equipment are accessible to, and usable by, persons with disabilities. Second, I will discuss where we stand in implementing Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. In particular, I will describe the Report and Order and Further Notice of Inquiry in WT Docket No. 96-198 that the Commission released just a short while ago. Third and finally, I will talk about the Chairman's--and the Commission's--commitment to ensuring that access for all is included in the design of new telecommunications services and equipment.

Technological Developments

Let me begin, then, with the technological developments. When I step back from all of the details, I see five major trends or developments in telecommunications technology:

(1) the conversion from analog to digital networks,

(2) the conversion from circuit switching to packet switching,

(3) the conversion from narrowband to broadband transmission,

(4) improvements--that is, reductions--in the transmission delay or latency exhibited by networks using packet switching, and

(5) the ability to deploy not only wired networks with these advanced capabilities but wireless networks as well.

Some of these developments may be familiar to you; others may not be. But rather than delve into the details of these developments, let me simply state the bottom line: these developments are producing high-performance networks--or, more properly, a network of networks--that promises to allow us to communicate virtually anytime, anyplace, and in any mode or combination of modes--voice, text, data, image, and video.

Even more important, perhaps, this network of networks--this powerful platform--is associated with another special characteristic. The characteristic is that, in contrast to most earlier voice and data networks, this platform uses common, open, non-proprietary standards and protocols--that is, the Internet suite of protocols. Unlike the telephone network of old, where the network is intelligent and the terminals are dumb, in the Internet the terminals are intelligent and the network is dumb. As someone once said, the Internet is the telephone network turned inside out. In the Internet the control of individual calls or sessions and the creation of new services is shifted from the interior of the network to computers and other intelligent devices at the edge of the network. In the telecommunications world we refer to these devices at the edge of the network as customer premises equipment or, simply, CPE. Because the service is created in software as an application running on equipment at the edge of the network outside the control of the carrier or other provider, the opportunity for innovation and the pace of change it allows are truly amazing, as we have seen demonstrated dramatically over the past few years.

These broadband, low-latency, all-digital, packet-switched networks--coupled with increasingly intelligent, programmable devices at the edge of the network--give engineers an extremely powerful set of tools with which to work. When engineers contemplate the range of human characteristics that may interact with the networks and devices they are designing, they can program in the capabilities to have alternative, flexible modes of communications and alternative interfaces for input and output. Modes of input can include tactile controls or voice. Modes of output can include graphical images, textual prose, speech synthesis, or electronic Braille displays.

And, of course, the expanding availability of wireless access means that the designer can deliver those capabilities directly to the end users--wherever they might be--rather than imposing on the end users the need to come to the network. Future examples of this might include portable wireless devices that (a) provide information to blind travelers using the Global Positioning System (GPS) or (b) scan universal product codes and retrieve descriptions of them from a database on the Internet. As Chairman Kennard said in a speech late last year, "Properly harnessed, these networks and devices create a potent platform upon which to serve the needs of all of our citizens, including those with disabilities."

However, I recognize that these developments present a threat as well as a promise to the blind and visually impaired. These higher bandwidth, multi-mode networks facilitate more dynamic multimedia applications, which tend to be highly graphics- or video-oriented. In this situation, if the same essential information carried by still and moving images is not conveyed by voice or text, a serious accessibility barrier results for the blind.

Greater bandwidth--the ability to transmit more information in a given amount of time--means that these networks are capable of supporting simultaneous, coordinated, alternate modes of access, but it does not necessarily mean that they will. Moreover, given the tendency for evolving technologies to communicate increasingly through visual metaphors because of the power of that human sense, there is a natural tendency for new applications to reduce non-visual access unless the problem is confronted at the design stage.

On the other hand, if non-visual access is included, greater bandwidth would benefit blind persons in some particular ways in addition to the general ways beneficial to all consumers. I understand that people who are blind continue to face an unemployment rate of about 70 percent. This can be reduced by participation in accessible electronic commerce either at the office or by telecommuting. Work tasks that previously required paperwork and reliance on sighted clerks for assistance in reading and writing may now be possible instead through interactive electronic forms processing. Other activities of independent living would also benefit from accessible broadband services, such as the ability to vote privately with an appropriate secure application or the ability to shop at stores not convenient to public transportation.

Another factor that we must consider is the faster pace of change that is enabled by this common, open, non-proprietary, high-performance platform. With product cycles of eighteen months or twelve months or even less, a new product will have appeared before we can fix or adapt the old one to make it more accessible. Thus I conclude that, because (1) the availability of broadband networks may increase the tendency for new applications to reduce non-visual access as I mentioned a moment ago, and (2) a faster pace of change is associated with these powerful platforms, new services and new devices must be designed, developed, and fabricated at the outset to be accessible to--and usable by--individuals with disabilities. More specifically, it is absolutely essential that the issue of non-visual access be confronted at the design stage.

The Commission's Recent Action

I will turn now to the rules that the Commission adopted on July 15, 1999, and formally released just a short time ago. These rules implement Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and Section 251(a)(2) of the Communications Act of 1934. They require manufacturers of telecommunications equipment and providers of telecommunications services to ensure that such equipment and services are accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities, if readily achievable. For example, the rules the Commission adopted:

(1) require manufacturers and service providers to develop a process to evaluate the accessibility, usability, and compatibility of covered services and equipment;

(2) require manufacturers and service providers to ensure that information and documentation provided to customers are accessible to customers with disabilities, if readily achievable;

(3) require manufacturers or service providers to review the accessibility of a product or service and incorporate accessibility features, where readily achievable, at every natural opportunity;

(4) require the universal deployment of accessibility features that can be incorporated into product design when readily achievable; where those features cannot be universally deployed, but are readily achievable to incorporate into some products and services, manufacturers and service providers have the flexibility to distribute those features across their products or services as long as they do all that is readily achievable;

(5) where meeting accessibility requirements is not readily achievable, require manufacturers and service providers to ensure compatibility with existing peripheral devices or specialized Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) commonly used by individuals with disabilities to achieve access, if readily achievable; and

(6) prohibit a telecommunications carrier from installing network features, functions, or capabilities that do not comply with the accessibility requirements of the rules.

At the same time the Commission also adopted an informal complaint procedure whereby consumer complaints are forwarded to the manufacturer or service provider, who then has thirty days to attempt to resolve the customer's concerns and respond to the agency. Formal complaints may also be brought. In addition, the Commission may, based upon complaints or on its own motion, launch an investigation to determine if manufacturers and service providers are complying with our rules.

In adopting these rules, the Commission felt it was taking a dramatic step toward bringing people with disabilities into the information age. However, it was also aware of the rapid changes in the telecommunications industry that I described earlier. More specifically, it recognized (a) that there was a vast array of communications-related equipment and services available that was not covered by the rules it was adopting, (b) that innovative, equipment and services were being developed and deployed at a rapid clip, and (c) that these existing and rapidly evolving services and communications-related equipment would undoubtedly affect access to communications by persons with disabilities.

Accordingly, at the same time it voted for the rules I described in outline form a moment ago, the Commission also initiated a formal Notice of Inquiry to aid in its understanding of the access issues presented by communications services and equipment not covered by the rules it adopted. I hope that some of the organizations represented here today will consider filing comments in response to the Notice.

The Chairman's and the Commission's

Commitment to Accessibility

To summarize, we are, first of all, benefiting from the development of a common, open, non-proprietary, high-performance telecommunications network platform that provides the technological basis for improving accessibility. Second, we now have the necessary legislative mandate and are putting into place the necessary rules and regulations to ensure that this possibility for improved accessibility is indeed realized.

We all recognize that improving accessibility inevitably provides benefits to the general public, not just to persons with disabilities. Therefore, in an increasingly competitive market, we would hope that telecommunications companies will compete on the basis of accessibility as well as other factors and, in so doing, raise the bar for everyone. Nevertheless, we all also recognize that the marketplace alone may not be enough to ensure accessibility everywhere it is readily achievable. Consequently, an important remaining ingredient to ensuring accessibility is the commitment on the part of our agency to enforce those regulations.

The best indication of that commitment is the priority that the Chairman of the Commission, Bill Kennard, has attached to accessibility. Through both his words and actions the Chairman has insisted that all Americans should be able to enjoy the benefits of the network revolution that I cited here today. Concrete evidence of that commitment lies in the steps the agency has taken to implement Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

But as the Chairman recently pointed out in his remarks at the White House in conjunction with Disability Awareness Month, if you write a rule, you have to muster the resources and the will to enforce it. And, under the leadership of the Chairman, the Commission is doing exactly that.

Just this week the Commission formally announced the formation of two new Bureaus in the agency: the Enforcement Bureau and the Consumer Information Bureau. In announcing the creation of these two new bureaus, the Chairman stated, "Our decision to establish bureaus devoted exclusively to enforcement and consumer information signals the enormous importance of these functions in our transition from an industry regulator to a market facilitator."

In addition to enforcing our rules dealing with accessibility issues, the Commission is committed to making its own content and processes accessible to people with disabilities as expected by various Federal laws. This includes content and navigation of our Web site, our universal licensing system, and our electronic comment-filing system. Our staff has been working in these and other areas to improve the usability of FCC services and processes for people with disabilities, including persons who are blind. I expect further progress on that front with the formation of the new Consumer Information Bureau.

I could point to other specific steps the agency has taken in the disability access area. However, my time is up, and rather than do that, I will close by mentioning one activity that may be of particular interest to you--video description.

The Commission issued its first Notice of Inquiry on video description in 1995 and issued a second Notice of Inquiry in 1997 in the context of its annual review of competition in markets for the delivery of video programming. The Commission has also issued two reports on the subject. Various parties have asked the Commission to take steps to enhance the availability of video description, and in the recent past we have received several concrete proposals in this regard.

Because of the pending status of our efforts in this area, it would not be proper for me to speculate on what the Commission's response to these proposals might be. However, I can assure you that the Commission staff is seriously reviewing and considering the proposals, and, given the high priority that the Chairman has placed on accessibility issues, it would not surprise me to see some progress in this area in the near future.

Thank you again for inviting me here today and for the kind attention that you have afforded me.