Update 8/13: ZVRS and Purple Communication have created an American Sign Language version of this story. He is available to watch on Vimeo.
A common thread that ties together seemingly disparate stories presented in this column is how assistive technology exists as a means to combat structural ableism. Society is built for and by people with disabilities, just as society favors men and whites; America was founded by a group of white men, after all. The needs of people with disabilities, especially in this technologically dominant age, are a prime example of diversity and inclusion. Accessibility is so important, not just for technology but for life in general, because making things accessible is precisely how we feel included. That our worldview is so undervalued, even among the most ardent supporters of diversity and inclusion, speaks to this systemic ableism. A big part of what makes this neglect so frustrating is that we don’t just want to be seen as people, we want to show, especially through technology, that different perspectives lead to innovative and rewarding solutions that have the potential to help anyone, regardless of ability.
Consider the country’s telephone system. Revolutionary as he was, Alexander Graham Bell did not invent the telephone with a sensitivity to people with disabilities. Its basic premise remains today: people can talk to each other from a distance, but the machinations by which you do so assume that both parties can hear. Similarly, Apple has arguably made the iPhone the most accessible personal computer ever for the past decade, but phone calls still work just as Bell intended. To make them accessible to someone who is deaf or someone with a speech delay, for example, you have to jump through a relatively complex set of hoops to set it up. In other words, the conventional phone call is (and always has been) basically inaccessible to someone who cannot hear.
As I said, society is built on an ableist foundation.
The importance of bridging the communicative gap between the hearing and non-hearing worlds is of great importance to Sherri Turpin. Turpin is CEO of ZVRS and Purple Communications, a telecommunications company founded in 1982 that specializes in video relay services (VRS) for deaf and hard of hearing communities. “Most of my management team are deaf [and] our company works hard to provide modern communication technologies to our deaf, hard of hearing and deafblind users,” she said in a recent email interview with me.
VRS is a technological extension of the relay services that states such as California are mandated to provide to people who are deaf and hard of hearing. As a child of deaf adults myself, I grew up with the California Relay Service using a TTY. Whenever my parents wanted to call a hearing family member or friend, they dialed CRS first. 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 with the “lack of functional equivalence 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), but Turpin said consumer advocates have noted that VRS today fails to provide a host of essential services that hearing people take for granted, such as seamless access between vendors, interoperable equipment and Suite. The absence of these features is exclusive.
This inaccessibility belies the promise made by the Americans with Disabilities Act that the nation’s communications infrastructure would include a “functional equivalent” for people with disabilities. This is a notable distinction, as the ADA (as it is colloquially known) recently celebrated its 31st anniversary and much has been said about the progress of the law and its pitfalls. The lack of a modern communication system for the deaf and hard of hearing is another example of how old the ADA is in terms of regulating our digital world. Turpin noticed the dichotomy as she watched the White House commemorate the ADA’s passing, telling me she “witnessed two distinct perspectives on the progress” of the legislation. As much as those in Washington were celebrating the ADA’s monumental accomplishments, she said, it was true that the FCC was receiving comments from more than a thousand deaf Americans asking “not to be left behind in a digital world”. [and] demanding their basic human rights.
“With proper investment from the FCC, Video Relay Service can end the isolation of many people in the Deaf, Hard of Hearing and DeafBlind community. [sic], open new doors to employment and education and enable full connectivity with family, friends, colleagues, public agencies and businesses,” said Turpin. “[This] connectivity that is crucial to enabling the full independence and broad contributions of deaf, hard of hearing, and deafblind Americans.
As the FCC prepares to determine the future of the video relay service, Turpin recently wrote an opinion column for The Hill in which she pleads for the agency to continue investing in the technology. She reiterated many of the talking points from her article during our interview, the biggest being that she is “frustrated every day that VRS can’t keep up with the advanced phone innovations that everyone is using.” Nonetheless, Turpin is “so proud to be part of this movement,” she told me.
A key ally in the fight for telecommunications equality is the commission’s acting chair, Jessica Rosenworcel. Appointed by President Biden as interim president after being sworn in, it seems “likely,” according to Turpin, that the FCC will move forward with continued funding of VRS. The reason, Turpin added, is Rosenworcel’s recent comments that “functional equivalence is the foundation of our telecommunications relay service policies” and that “when we improve communications access for millions of people with disabilities , we are strengthening our economy, our civic life, and our nation. All in all, Turpin is optimistic this year will be one of “meaningful change and improvement” for VRS under Rosenworcel’s leadership. Turpin hopes the needs people with disabilities will get as much press attention as net neutrality, which is another area of FCC jurisdiction.
As Turpin wrote for The Hill: “The Federal Communications Commission has the opportunity to right this wrong in the weeks ahead and it is its duty to do so.”
A recurring theme in my interview with Turpin was functional equivalence. The fact that she (and countless others) have to bang the drum so hard and so consistently for equivalence speaks to society’s deep-rooted structural ableism. Namely, our nation’s infrastructure clearly does not prioritize people with disabilities; just as white male privilege dominates our institutions, so do the privileges of the disabled. The fact that this mission is so personal to Turpin is exactly why accessibility and the voice of people with disabilities should be more revered. If that’s not you, dear reader, it could be someone you know and love who needs a home in some way. To think otherwise, as to be invincible, is – you guessed it – toying with long-ingrained ableist stereotypes.