RESNA 28th Annual Conference - Atlanta, Georgia
Helena Mitchell, Ph.D., Paul M.A. Baker, Ph.D., and Alan Bakowski
Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Mobile Wireless Technologies for Persons with Disabilities (Wireless RERC)
Atlanta, GA 30318
This paper provides a status report and summation presented at the 2004 “State of Technology on Mobile Wireless Technologies for Persons with Disabilities Conference,” held in May 2004 in Atlanta, Georgia, on the role of policymakers to increase the potential of mobile wireless in the United States to assist persons with disabilities. A user survey of the Consumer Advisory Network of the Wireless RERC indicated that 86 percent of participants with disabilities were interested in trying out a prototype of a new wireless device. Barriers to the use of these technologies by people with disabilities can be mitigated through the development of appropriate policy.
Wireless technologies, regulation, policy, barriers to use, WirelessRERC
A major international conference “State of Technology on Mobile Wireless Technologies for Persons with Disabilities,” sponsored by The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Mobile Wireless Technologies for Persons with Disabilities (Wireless RERC) was held in May 2004 in Atlanta, Georgia. Stakeholders (government, regulatory agencies, state legislatures, consulates, user groups, universities, rehabilitation centers, advocacy groups, manufacturers, designers) from eleven countries the progress made in the wireless and disability research arena. This paper provides a status report and summation presented at the conference on the role of policymakers to increase the potential of mobile wireless in the United States to assist persons with disabilities.
Mobile wireless information and communication technologies (ICTs) have emerged as an important medium in which to communicate as well as to conduct transactions and to obtain information to assist in navigating daily activities.  A user survey of the Consumer Advisory Network of the Wireless RERC  indicated that 86 percent of participants with disabilities were interested in trying out a prototype of a new wireless device. Barriers to the use of these technologies by people with disabilities can be mitigated through the development of appropriate policy. Regulation of wireless technology development in the U.S. is handled by different administrative bodies, depending on the area involved. Disability policy is generated by other administrative bodies. Agencies with some degree of concern include the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Council on Disability, and the Access Board.
The FCC has developed a number of initiatives to increase access and reduce barriers to the use of wireless technologies for people with disabilities. Specific disability issues are coordinated by the Disability Rights Office (DRO) in the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau (CGAB). Most of its disability-related initiatives are regulatory or administrative actions required by legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 255 of the Communications Act. Although disability issues fall within the FCC’s mandate to act “in the public interest,” they have not used that authority to create bold initiatives for people with disabilities. This is due to a combination of legal constraints on the Commission’s authority and the large scope of the Commission’s jurisdiction. The Commission’s CGAB in an effort to decrease barriers for people with disabilities has initiated forums on several disability related issues. There is however, no coordinated framework for wireless technologies and people with disabilities. The FCC has in recent years identified a series of key issues that impact wireless technologies and people with disabilities. These include (in no particular order): Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS), Emergency Alert System (EAS,) Product Accessibility, IP-Enabled Services, Wireless Broadband/Universal Service.
The FCC is responsible for overseeing Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS) that allow people with hearing and/or speech disabilities to interact with standard voice users on the public telephone network. While many aspects of TRS have been codified by law, the FCC has been investigating how wireless and other new technologies can expand relay services to meet changing needs and demands. Specifically, the shift towards Internet Protocol (IP)-Enabled services presents both challenges and opportunities for people with disabilities relying on the public telephone network for communication. The convergence of voice, video, and data services raises questions about the future of relay services and how citizens can communicate intermodally. Of note, the FCC initiated rulemaking proceedings (FCC 04-137) in June addressing the future of IP relay and video relay services, potentially drivers for broadband services. 
Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act requires that manufacturers and service providers make their equipment and services accessible to people with disabilities when readily achievable. The FCC is responsible for enforcing this law and it works with people with disabilities to resolve their complaints with companies. New wireless telecommunications services, and conflicts in the U.S. regulatory regime create uneven accessibility standards. The FCC receives both formal and informal complaints from consumers about the inaccessibility of telecommunications products and services.
The EAS is composed of broadcast networks; cable networks and program suppliers; AM, FM, and TV broadcast stations; cable systems; wireless cable systems, among other entities and industries operating on an organized basis during emergencies at the National, State and local levels. The FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) (FCC 04-189) on the EAS, seeking comment on making the EAS a more effective emergency mechanism. The NPRM also addresses the need for comments on the topic of providing emergency information and alerts for individuals with disabilities. The FCC’s commitment to making sure that equal access to public warning for persons with disabilities is also evident through other requirements. It requires, for instance, that all distributors of video programming that provide emergency information must make it available in a format accessible to persons with hearing and vision limitation.
Mobile wireless technologies can offer specialized information services in multiple formats for people with disabilities, however, coverage is not yet comprehensive and inexpensive enough to guarantee accessibility for all. The FCC is focusing on making broadband services available to every American, and it is increasingly turning to wireless networks to achieve that goal. By reallocating spectrum and setting standards for cognitive “smart” radio systems, the FCC is focused on expanding wireless broadband in rural and underserved communities where many people with disabilities live. The FCC has initiated a number of proceedings related to wireless broadband. In May 2004 the Commission formed a Wireless Broadband Access Task Force charged with identifying ways to facilitate further deployment. In addition, the FCC hosted a forum on wireless broadband and proposed new spectrum allocation rules (FCC 04-135; FCC 04-113; FCC 04-100) that will foster growth in wireless services. The Task Force is currently investigating the issue and is seeking public comment.
Wireless information and communications technologies offer individuals the means to lead a more independent, knowledgeable and convenient lifestyle, making information readily available regardless of location or time. The resources and capabilities of research and other organizations can be leveraged to facilitate research, business and academic collaboration. A policy agenda placing an emphasis on collaborations, domestically and internationally, and supporting initiatives to develop new applications of telecommunications technologies can offer new opportunities for people with disabilities, and reduce barriers existing in day-to-day living. The critical contribution of wireless technologies toward improving the quality of life not only for persons with disabilities, but also for all members of society underscores the importance of wireless communications policy and research initiatives. In conclusion, sharing, collaborating and creative policymaking will further international relations and benefit not only citizens of developed nations but also improve the social welfare of citizens worldwide.
This research was funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the U.S. Department of Education, grant number H133EO10804. The opinions contained in this report are those of the grantee and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education.