From AAPD (6.16.2010):
House Hearing on Accessible Technology Sparks Partisan Exchanges
by Jenifer Simpson, Senior director, Government Affairs, AAPD
Rep. Markey (D-MA) who introduced HR 3101, with hearing witnesses (l-r) Sgt. Major Jesse Acosta (Ret. Army) and Lise Hamlin, Director of Public Policy and State Development, at the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA)
On June 10, 2010, at the House Subcommittee hearing on H.R. 3101, the “21st Century Communications & Video Accessibility Act,” AAPD staff and four AAPD summer interns got a taste of the current partisan differences between Democratic and Republican representatives. H.R. 3101 would update the current Communications law to ensure more accessibility and usability by people with speech, hearing, vision and other disabilities in new communications technologies, especially as they interface with the Internet. H.R. 3101 is the legislation that the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT) has been asking for over the past three years.
While the hearing opened with a positive and encouraging statement from full House Energy & Commerce (E&C) Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (CA), snippy exchanges between the Members dominated the tone of the hearing and the later press reports. Waxman had said "It's time to bring Americans with disabilities across the digital divide" and stated he wants to bring the bill to the floor at this momentous time, the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
However, when Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), one witness on the panel, said that "mandating universal design is an innovation killer" and that it would be ‘a choke collar’ on his members, Rep. Markey, the lead sponsor of H.R.3101 challenged him, saying all of this was untrue. Markey highlighted language in the bill limiting rules to larger companies that can afford to build in accessibility. But Shapiro said the law is overly burdensome, because it would force companies seeking exemption to prove that they shouldn’t be covered.
Republicans later accused Markey of a set-up after Rep. Markey asked retired Sgt. Maj. Jesse Acosta, one of the disability witnesses, if he agreed with Shapiro that accessibility should be completely voluntary. Acosta lost his vision after a bomb attack in Iraq and is a member of the American Council of the Blind, a founding member of COAT. Acosta said, “Nothing will happen.” He also said. “Industry isn’t designing accessibility into enough products, and people with disabilities can’t rely on them to start doing it voluntarily.” Shapiro replied, “You cannot require every new product to be responsive to every disability.” Markey shot back, “My bill does not do that,” and he called it “very deceptive” for Shapiro to say otherwise. Markey added: “I wish you would just stop repeating that. It is untrue.” Then a heated verbal exchange followed with Subcommittee Ranking Member Cliff Stearns (FL) saying “Markey has created an emotional frenzy, it’s terrible, totally unfair for you to set up a war hero with the CEO of an association and try to play that emotional game that you do continually,” he said, and then proceeded to explain Shapiro’s positions to the hearing room!
Despite these heated exchanges, COAT witnesses did a remarkable job raising the disability point of view. Lise Hamlin of the Hearing Loss Association of America, another leading COAT affiliate said, “We want an equal opportunity to benefit from advanced communications technologies.” She noted how H.R. 3101 would establish a Real Time Text standard, important in emergency communications, affirmed that the bill would benefit people who are blind, deaf people, and people who are deaf-blind and others like herself, with a hearing aid and a cochlear implant. She also stated “accessibility should not be subject to a popularity contest” and said that accessibility spurs innovation, among other points. She also told the committee that “it would be absolutely fabulous to pass the bill this year of the 20th Anniversary of the ADA."
COAT witness Sgt Major Jesse Acosta (Ret. Army) said that he can’t hear any of the critical information found in TV emergency news texted scrolls as it is not audio outputted as well. He also reported that his late model cell phone has a flat key pad that he can't use and has to ask others to dial for him. He also thanked Apple for their efforts to bring products to market with so much accessibility built-in and out-of-the-box for people like him who are blind but reminded everyone that "80% of blind people can’t afford the expensive stuff." He also stated he "wants HR 3101 passed because industry forgets about us blind people and those with hearing disabilities."
Witness Walter McCormick of the US Telecommunications Association said his organization prefers H.R. 3101 over the Senate bill S. 3304 due to its technological parity, referring to the better definition of advanced communications services found in H.R. 3101. McCormick also emphasized the amount of time and work put into H.R. 3101 by the organizations in his trade association working ‘with the disabled community’ to reach consensus legislative language.
Other industry representatives were much less supportive of the measure. James Assey, Executive VP of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) seemed to support reinstatement of video description but NCTA has concerns with its cost, utility or usage, and how to operationalize video description. Another industry witness, Bobby Franklin, VP of Cellular Telecommunication Industry Association (CTIA) said they had concerns with the enforcement provisions and that don't want to have responsibility for accessibility of third party applications run on wireless networks.
AAPD was also delighted to see many company representatives at the hearing, for example, Apple, AT&T, and Panasonic. Many of COAT’s other leaders attended such as from American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), AG Bell, and the National Association of the Deaf (NAD). Other disability organizational representatives also attended such as from UCPA, NFB, Blinded Veterans' Association, CaptionAction2, and VetsFirst. Several officials attended from the federal agency – the Federal Communications Commission – that would have the task of implementing H.R. 3101, if enacted. These included Deputy Bureau Chief Karen Peltz Strauss of the Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau, Wireless Bureau staff such as Elizabeth Lyle and Susan Kimmel, and from the Disabilities Rights Office, attorney Greg Hlibok.
AAPD noted the number of congressional representatives who appeared at this hearing, some asking questions and some not. They included: Rep. Jay Inslee (WA); Rep. Marsha Blackburn (TN); Rep. Parker Griffith (AL); Rep. Cathy Castor (FL); Rep. Bob Latta (OH); and Rep. Doris Matsui (CA). Ms. Matsui issued a press release the day of the hearing saying she was now co-sponsoring H.R. 3101. Rep. Blackburn said she wanted things "to slow down" and only spoke with the CEA witness. Advocates were left wondering what speed she has in mind as a draft bill much like HR 3101 was first published in December 2007 and new technologies enter the marketplace rapidly. For example, the iPhone didn’t exist when advocates first started asking for these updates to the Communications Act. Rep. Parker Griffith noted that Helen Keller was born and grew up in his Alabama district and he felt sure any difficulties could be worked out. Rep. Inslee asked some good questions about how to ensure accessibility. Advocates noted also that Rep. Anna Eshoo (CA), a member of the House Subcommittee, while not attending this hearing, had also signed on as a sponsor of H.R. 3101 by the hearing date. Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (VA) gaveled the hearing, and in closing said -- despite the obvious intransigence of more than one industry organization -- that he was still looking for a consensus bill.
The full video of the House hearing plus transcripts of witness testimony are online at
More on HR 3101 at http://www.coataccess.org
Read & Comment on CEA CEO Gary Shapiro’s negative Op Ed on HR 3101, at http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/jun/9/dems-want-to-redesign-your-iphone/
Item by Jenifer Simpson, Senior director, Government Affairs, American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD. AAPD is a founding and steering committee member of COAT.