April 30, 2015 - 1:07 pm
By Tom Wheeler | FCC Chairman

"I feel more equal, more independent. It changed my life" – Lori Siedman, Boston, Massachusetts

"I just don’t have the words to explain how exciting this is for me and how very significant this is to me." – Rosetta Brown, Conyers, Georgia

"I’ve been given a chance to be a productive member of society." – Ramona Rice, Riverdale, Utah

When you hear people speaking in such powerful terms, you take notice. When they are talking about a program under your jurisdiction that is due to expire, you take action.

Established by the FCC in July 2012, the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program, what we call iCanConnect, empowers low-income individuals who are deaf-blind to access 21st Century communications services.

The program provides up to $10 million annually for communications technologies for individuals who have both significant vision loss and significant hearing loss. In addition, it provides training for these individuals to ensure they can fully utilize the equipment they receive.

Programs are in place in all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, and they are having a powerful impact. Thousands of individuals like Lori Siedman, Rosetta Brown, and Ramona Rice have been served, thousands of pieces of equipment have been distributed, and many hours of training have been delivered.

Ryan Odland, coordinator for the New York Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program with the Helen Keller National Center (HKNC), has spoken about the power of iCanConnect to overcome the isolation that people living with sight and hearing impairments can experience. “The technology offered through this program allows deaf-blind individuals to join in as contributive members with the rest of our society,” said Odland. “Humans depend on one another for support to function, deaf-blind individuals are no different.” Although iCanConnect is transforming lives across America, it’s currently is set to expire on June 30, 2015. The National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program was authorized by the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA). The FCC established it as a pilot program that we launched in 2012. That needs to change.

Today, I’m circulating a proposal to extend the pilot program past June 30 and simultaneously move forward with rules to establish the permanent program. To start along this road, the Commission had already issued a public notice asking for comments on how to improve the program. The proposed rules reflect ideas for improvements gathered from the public notice and lessons learned from the pilot program.

When people talk about iCanConnect as a life-saver, they are speaking metaphorically. For people with disabilities, new technology can also be a life-saver literally.

In an emergency, every second counts. If a tornado warning appears on your television in an on-screen crawl, that can give you the time you need to seek shelter, if you can read it. The Commission adopted rules in 2013 to ensure that individuals who are blind or visually impaired have access to visual emergency information when it is shown during non-newscast television programming, such as in an on-screen crawl, through an aural presentation on a secondary audio stream to which consumers can switch in order to hear the information.

More and more Americans today watch video programming provided by cable or satellite operators – whether it be local news, a network sitcom, or public television events – on their laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

That’s why the Commission will consider a proposal at our May meeting that makes certain that these “second screens” allow emergency information displayed during television programming to be accessible to blind and visually impaired persons. At the same time, we will consider requiring manufacturers to include a simple and easy to use mechanism for cable and satellite subscribers to switch between the main and secondary audio streams in order to hear that critical information in real-time.

It is my hope and expectation that these new rules will enable individuals who are blind or visually impaired to more quickly respond to time-sensitive emergency situations.

Communications technology has the power to dramatically improve the lives of all Americans, but the possibilities are even more pronounced for people with disabilities. I look forward to working with my colleagues to expand access to this life-changing technology.