A common thread that connects seemingly disparate stories featured in this column is how assistive technology exists as a means to combat structural ableism. Society is built for and by abled people, much in the same ways society favors men and white people; America was founded by a bunch of white men, after all. The needs of disabled people—especially in this technologically dominant age—is a prime example of diversity and inclusion. Accessibility is so important, not only to technology but to life in general, because making things accessible is precisely how we feel included. That our worldview is so undervalued, even amongst the most ardent supporters of diversity and inclusion, is a testament to said systemic ableism. A large part of what makes this neglect so frustrating is we want not only to be viewed as people—we want to show, particularly through technology, that differing perspectives leads to innovative, enriching solutions that has potential to help anyone, regardless of ability.
Consider the country’s phone system. Revolutionary though it was, Alexander Graham Bell didn’t invent the telephone with a sensibility towards disabled people. His basic premise remains today: People can talk to each other remotely, but the machinations by which you do so assume both parties can hear. Likewise, Apple has undoubtedly made the iPhone the most accessible personal computer ever made over the last decade-plus, but phone calls still work the way Bell intended. To make them accessible to a Deaf person or someone with a speech delay, for instance, you must jump through a relatively complex set of hoops to set it up. Put another way, the conventional phone call is (and always has been) fundamentally inaccessible to someone who can’t hear.
As I said, society is built atop an ableist foundation.
The importance of bridging the communicative gap between the hearing and non-hearing worlds is of great significance to Sherri Turpin. Turpin is chief executive at ZVRS and Purple Communications, a telecom company founded in 1982 that specializes in video relay services (VRS) to those in the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. “Most of my executive team is deaf [and] our company works hard to provide modern communications technologies to our Deaf, hard-of-hearing, and deaf-blind users,” she said in a recent interview with me conducted over email.
VRS is an expansion, technologically, of the relay services that states such as California are mandated to provide Deaf and hard-of-hearing people. As a child of deaf adults myself, I grew up with the California Relay Service using a TTY. Whenever my parents would want to call a hearing family member or friend, they would first dial CRS. The operator would then relay what the person on the other end of the call was saying by voice via text (using the TTY). VRS is conceptually the same, except with video relay, you’re dealing with sign language interpreters and video rather than text.
Turpin is frustrated at the “absence of functional equivalency and equal access” in telephone communications for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing. The Video Relay Service is funded by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), yet Turpin said consumer advocates have noted VRS today fails to provide a slew of critical services that hearing people take for granted—such as seamless access across providers, interoperable equipment, and more. The lack of these features is exclusionary.
This inaccessibility belies the promise made by the Americans with Disabilities Act that the country’s communication infrastructure would include a “functional equivalent” for disabled people. This is a notable distinction, as the ADA (as it’s colloquially known) recently celebrated its 31st anniversary and much has been made of the law’s progress—and its pitfalls. The lack of a modern communication system for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing is yet another example of how antiquated the ADA is in terms of regulating our digital-first world. Turpin noticed the dichotomy as she watched the White House commemorate the ADA’s passing, telling me she “witnessed two distinct views of the progress” by the legislation. As much as those in Washington were celebrating the monumental achievements of the ADA, she said, it was also true the FCC was fielding comments from over a thousand Deaf Americans asking “not to be left behind in a digital world [and] asking for their basic human rights.”
“With proper investment by the FCC, the Video Relay Service can end the isolation of many people in the deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind community [sic], open new doors to jobs and education, and allow full connectivity with family, friends, colleagues, public agencies and businesses,” Turpin said. “[This] connectivity that is crucial to enable the full independence and vast contributions of deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind Americans.”
As the FCC readies to determine the future of the Video Relay Service, Turpin recently wrote an opinion column for The Hill in which she advocates for the agency to further its investment in the technology. She reiterated much of the talking points in her piece during our interview, the biggest one being she is “frustrated every day that VRS fails to keep pace with the advanced telephone innovations everyone else gets to use.” Nonetheless, Turpin is “so proud to be part of this movement,” she told me.
A key ally in the fight for telecom equality is the Commission’s Acting Chairwoman, Jessica Rosenworcel. Nominated by President Biden as interim chair upon being sworn into office, it’s looking “likely,” according to Turpin, that the FCC will move forward with continuing to fund VRS. The reason, Turpin added, are recent comments by Rosenworcel that “functional equivalency is the foundation of our telecommunications relay service policies” and that “when we improve access to communications for millions of individuals with disabilities, we strengthen our economy, our civic life, and our nation.” All told, Turpin is optimistic this year will be one of “meaningful change and improvement” for VRS under Rosenworcel’s stewardship. Turpin is hopeful the needs of disabled people gets as much attention by the press as net neutrality garners, which is another area of the FCC’s jurisdiction.
As Turpin wrote for The Hill: “The Federal Communications Commission has the opportunity to right this wrong in the coming weeks and it is their duty to do so.”
A recurring theme of my interview with Turpin was functional equivalency. That she (and countless others) have to bang the drum so loudly and so constantly for equivalence speaks to society’s deep-rooted structural ableism. To wit, our nation’s infrastructure clearly does not prioritize people with disabilities; just as white, male privilege dominates our institutions, so too does abled privilege. The fact this mission is so personal to Turpin is exactly why accessibility, and the voices of disabled people, ought to be more revered. If not you, dear reader, it could be someone you know and love that needs accommodation one way or another. To think otherwise, as if to be invincible, is—you guessed it—playing into long-entrenched ableist stereotypes.