Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.), Chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, today chaired a hearing entitled "Innovation And Inclusion: The Americans With Disabilities Act At 20."
The hearing addressed the Equal Access to 21st Century Communications Act that Senator Kerry has cosponsored with Senator Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) to improve internet and technology access for the hearing, speech, and visually impaired communities.
"Twenty years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is time to recommit ourselves to ensuring Americans with disabilities are not left behind - online or off," said Sen. Kerry. "The goal is clear -- ensure that Americans with disabilities have the opportunity to access and use the communications infrastructure and services just like the rest of us. Doing so is critical to making good on our commitment to an open and inclusive society."
The full text of his statement as prepared is below:
I want to thank our witnesses and my colleagues here today for this hearing on two important matters--promoting innovation in modern communications and making sure people with disabilities are included in this economic and social revolution. Twenty years after the passage of the ADA, it is time to recommit ourselves to ensuring Americans with disabilities are not left behind - online or off.
Earlier this week, Chairman Rockefeller and I, along with our counterparts in the House, called for initiating a process to update whatever laws and regulations we need to make sure they are in sync with the modern communications market. How stakeholders approach the debate over increasing access to modern communications for people with disabilities, I believe, can serve as an interesting case study in how they will approach the broader effort to update our laws.
We will have to see if providing people with disabilities access to the wires, devices, and services that connect us to the Internet and, over time, the services on the Internet itself can bring people of goodwill together to negotiate in good faith. Or, as is too often the case, will K Street special interests work to shift responsibility to others or game the rules to prevent the entry of new competitors or portray good faith efforts to provide for an open and inclusive marketplace as government overreach?
I am pleased to report that Senator Pryor's staff and mine have benefited from the willing participation of advocates for the disabled, various industry players, and experts at the FCC in the lead up to this hearing - preparations that included the introduction of legislation largely modeled on Congressman Markey's work in the House. We can and should get this bill over the finish line this year. But it will require cooperation and compromise on all sides as does all legislation.
The goal is clear -- ensure that Americans with disabilities have the opportunity to access and use the communications infrastructure and services just like the rest of us. Doing so is critical to making good on our commitment to an open and inclusive society.
Today, it is less than clear that Americans with disabilities have full legal rights to access the entryways onto the Internet -- that is, the telephone and cable wires that come into your home -- or the devices that allow you to communicate wirelessly over the Internet. Too many of the applications transmitted over those devices and facilities are also inaccessible to people with disabilities. And the huge companies that own the pipes coming into your home or design and sell the devices that make access possible may not have to make those services and devices accessible to people with disabilities.
Working with my friend Representative Markey as well as Senator Pryor and others in the Senate, we intend to change that. But we need your help. And we need industry cooperation. Our bill aims to require several things - that beginning with the largest firms that control access and entry onto the Internet and eventually spreading to all communications service providers over the Internet, that they at a minimum make a good faith effort at accessibility and also, where technology is available to make a product or service accessible, that they adopt it.
It is not right that a deaf actor doesn't have the opportunity to learn their craft or develop important skills that comes from watching other actors perform because he or she cannot access what those actors are saying.
It is wrong that a soldier blinded in combat can come home and not be able to fully access at least some of what is on his television, including emergency information.
It is unacceptable that because a child is born deaf, that he cannot use a video conferencing service that would allow him or her to sign a conversation with his friends who are not disabled or have a different disability.
One of our central responsibilities as policymakers is to write rules and regulations to provide for access to essential services where the market will not of its own volition make them available to every American community, whether they be isolated by geography or disability. Fulfilling that responsibility is what made electricity and phone service available almost everywhere. It is that kind of commitment that led us to mandate closed captioning for television so that the deaf could get the news in a crisis like the rest of us. It is also what led Congress to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act two decades ago. And we believe that today access to the Internet and the ability to communicate over smart phones and computers is an essential service of the 21st century.
We tried to strike a balance in our proposed legislation between industry's ability to innovate free from onerous regulation and making sure that the needs of people with disabilities are considered and addressed in the delivery of Internet service and the communications tools used to connect people across it. We will continue to work with everyone interested in helping us meet that challenge but we will not wait forever for industry not just to come to the table, but also to present solutions. And we will not accept a communications infrastructure that refuses to include people with disabilities.
The time to solve this problem is now and the willingness of all the communities and industries involved to help make that happen will set the right tone and stage for the broader update of the Communications Act down the road.