WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation announces the following Communications, Technology, and the Internet Subcommittee hearing on Innovation and Inclusion: The Americans with Disabilities Act at 20.
Individuals with disabilities who require an auxiliary aid or service, including closed captioning service for webcast hearings, should contact Collenne Wider at 202-224-5511 at least three business days in advance of the hearing date.
Chairman John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IVU.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
WASHINGTON, D.C.—This summer we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This historic civil rights legislation provided a broad national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against people with disabilities. As a result, during the past two decades, more than 54 million Americans have had a meaningful opportunity to participate in our economy and in our everyday way of life. In communities across West Virginia, we have seen the law increase access to services, promote equality, and protect legal rights – the kind of steady systemic change that makes a real difference in people’s lives.
But we do not honor this great achievement by looking only to the past. We honor it by bringing it into the future. So at our hearing today, the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet will consider how we need to update the Americans with Disabilities Act and related laws, so that they better reflect the digital age.
I have worked my entire career to bring the power and the promise of new communications technology to every corner of my state. I have seen the opportunity it creates for our communities, changing education, improving healthcare, and strengthening local businesses. We have a responsibility to make sure that kind of transformative opportunity is available to everyone. It is vitally important that our policies and programs keep up with the blistering speed of constantly changing technology.
So I very much support this discussion, because I believe that the requirement of functional equivalency needs to evolve as our communications technology evolves. I believe that innovation can beget more inclusion, and I believe that when we extend opportunity more broadly, we multiply the benefits for every American.
I salute Senator Pryor for his legislative efforts on this subject. His work has jump-started an important conversation about updating our communications laws to provide full access for people with disabilities in the digital age. I also appreciate the time and attention Senator Kerry brings to this subject and his willingness to hold this hearing. It is with pride that I note that the Commerce Committee has made it a high priority to ensure that all of its hearings are accessible to people with disabilities, and has responded to all requests for accommodations.
I extend my gratitude to all of our witnesses today. Their interest in this subject will undoubtedly inform our work as we go forward.
Senator John F. KerryChairmanU.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet
WASHINGTON, D.C. - 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 providingpeople 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.
Thank you, and with that, I turn to my colleague and ranking member, Senator Ensign.
Witness Panel 1
The Honorable Edward MarkeyU.S. House of Representatives
Witness Panel 2
Mr. Russell HarvardActor
Sgt. Brian Pearce (Ret.)U.S. Army
Mr. Thomas WlodkowskiAccessibility DirectorAOL Inc.
Ms. Bobbie Beth ScogginsPresidentNational Association of the Deaf
Mr. Walter McCormickPresident and Chief Executive OfficerUS Telecom Association