Jul 24

Happy Anniversary ADA!

On my grandfather Abraham’s deathbed, he told me that I was lucky to have access to multiple kinds of modern technology. He envied me for having the ability to communicate with the Deaf and hearing using videophone technology.

During most of his life, Abraham’s only ability to communicate with the hearing world was through crude methods, such as gesturing and writing on a piece of paper using a pencil/pen. It was not until the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed the civil rights legislation in 1990 that Abraham was finally able to communicate with my father from his home through the videophone.

The ADA of 1990 features five different titles that enables and protects rights for individuals with disabilities. Titles II, III, and IV are very important clauses of the legislation that enforces effective communication for people like me.

State and Local Government – Title II (Section 7), Public Accommodations – Title III (Section 36), and Telecommunications – Title IV of the ADA initiated the floodgates of access for people with hearing loss. The Deaf, Hard of Hearing, Deaf-Blind, Intelligent and Cognitive challenged, as well as many others rely on this act which provides the ability to join the norms of mainstream America life.

With the ongoing evolution of communication technology for people similar to myself, I discovered my calling for promoting equal communication access for all. Nowadays, there is an immense wealth of information readily available to anyone, however, not all are accessible.

Invented in the mid-1960s, the cumbersome TeleTypewriter (known as the TTY), gave Deaf people the ability to independently communicate over the telephone. While the TTY was an innovative invention, the Deaf were unable to express their emotions, nuances of facial expression and body language, and clarity while conversing with others. Approximately 15 years later, TTY relay services were established, giving Deaf people the ability to communicate with hearing people by making a TTY call to an operator (with a TTY), who then verbally communicated messages over the telephone to the listener and vice versa. For more than four decades, the TTY facilitated telephone communication for millions of people.

The passage of the ADA contributed to the widespread implementation of videophones, allowing Deaf people to communicate through the use of a camera and a television. Quality of conversations were drastically improved as visual barriers were lifted, allowing Deaf people to see facial expressions and many other non-manual markers that could not be detected through faceless communication.

Videophone technology prompted the birth of the Video Relay Service (VRS) industry, which utilizes American Sign Language interpreters to facilitate communication between Deaf and hearing callers. Regulation of VRS is headed by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), which also oversees Telecommunication Relay Services. This industry generates approximately almost one billion dollars annually.

Due to the high demand for face-to-face (direct) communication using sign language over the telephone, the FCC is implementing direct services for the deaf, which enables the Deaf to have first party communication over the telephone without having to use in-person sign language interpreters. The FCC has received so many phone calls from people who want to comment, file, and inquire about anything regarding to their communication access. Microsoft, an independent technology business entity, recently launched their own direct services program for the Deaf and has begun hiring people with sign language skills to provide the services. Direct services are generating customer relationship management job opportunities for people with American Sign Language skills.

Technology innovation allows communication through various mediums such as texting, instant messaging, electronic mail (e-mail), telephones, and more. The ADA helps to ensure effective communication is accessible to all. We have been working diligently to make communication more mainstream for everyone.

Despite the advances in technology, there are still ongoing communication barriers. The following are some modes of alternative communication access, as well as its pros and cons, and scenarios where communication inequality can prove to be an impediment.

  • Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) is a great tool for people who need immediate communication access while they wait for sign language interpreters to arrive at the premises. This cost-effective technology often hinders people’s ability for clear communication due to its environmental limitations and technological challenges. Often, large institutions are quick to replace sign language interpreters with VRI services in order to meet the “effective communication” compliance required by the law without asking their consumers which mode of communication they prefer.

  • Communication access real-time translation (CART) is widely available and utilized in educational institutions, conferences, courts, and more. Beneficial to many and considered as part of effective communication, CART is designed for one-way communication. The reader may not be able to ask questions verbally and receives responses in the transcript.

  • Captioning, widely seen on televisions, is not being effectively used for online media, such as the Internet, YouTube, etc. Over 40 million people with hearing loss are excluded from enjoying and learning from the assortment of information and videos out there. Currently, Google is working on an automatic captioning functionality within their systems to be used in YouTube videos. Multiple interactive online courses provided by colleges and universities have not yet implemented captions on videos and voice-interactive chat room discussions for the Deaf, Deaf-Blind, and hard of hearing students. How can these students take the course and be expected to participate remotely? Obviously, this aspect of technology needs improvement.

The distribution of information outside of the home still has a long way to go to become accessible. For example, during disasters, the Deaf, Deaf-Blind, and hard of hearing are often left in the dark when it comes to receiving alerts and information requiring immediate action. To date, our communities are still relying on sirens, loudspeakers, radio communication, audible notifications, and more. Technology may be advanced, however, it still relies on power sources, such as electricity. Once the power goes out, technology is rendered useless, except for radio communication, resulting in grave consequences for us.

While traveling abroad, communication is often not accessible due to various limitations that could easily be remedied. Most signage, set up for any visual notifications, are not often constantly maintained. Examples include change in flight information not being displayed on the television and road/highway marquees stating generic instead of detailed information. Hearing people are able to run to the correct terminal or gate and divert their driving route, while we, the Deaf, are often stuck and go through unnecessary hassle.

Seeking professional assistance from small and private practitioners in both the medical and legal fields can be difficult, as they often resist and refuse to provide sign language interpreters due to ignorance or feeling like this imposes an undue burden of cost.

Please take a moment to recognize the changes that have occurred due to the ADA legislation. So many things have improved since the TTY, yet we have so much work ahead of us. My grandfather Abraham, who lived through the era of the TTY and the very beginning of the videophone, believed that we were fortunate to be blessed with the advances of equal communication access.

These communication barriers I mentioned are barely scratching the surface what we actually endure on a daily basis. In violation of the ADA, the Deaf, Deaf-Blind, and Hard of Hearing are continually being isolated from the general population. We have a long ways to go to achieve 100 percent accessible communication. It is my passion to continue being a staunch advocate for promoting effective communication access for the Deaf, Deaf-Blind, and Hard of Hearing people.

Let’s celebrate the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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