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Broadband: A Vital Communications Link for People with Disabilities

Deborah Kaplan
former Executive Director

World Institute on Disability


From Alliance for Public Technology's report, "Increasing Access to Telecom and Broadband Networks in California: Consumer Perspectives on Telecommunications Regulation" at Deborah Kaplan is one of the founding Board members of Alliance for Public Technology.

For the more than 6 million people in California with disabilities, advanced telecommunications technologies and services are not just something nice to have. They are a critical communications link and equalizer with the rest of the population. That’s why the World Institute on Disability (WID) was one of the first disability organizations to become involved in the arcane world of telecommunications policy. WID supported deployment of broadband before many people knew or could envision its potential. WID also built the public policy groundwork that led to Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (‘96 Act), which requires that telecommunications companies make their products and services accessible to consumers with disabilities.

The current use of broadband technology at home and in the workplace has proven us right. For example, broadband connections enable sign language interpreters to provide their services remotely for essential tasks such as going to the doctor or participate in a business meeting, as well as distance learning programs. Likewise, organizations that need to hire sign language interpreters to comply with legal requirements can save money when interpreters are available through video conferencing. A person who is blind or has low vision can use search engines to go directly to specific information in travel guides, text books and other documents without having to sort through large amounts of content. Disabled people also shop on the Web and participate in volunteer activities using broadband technologies. In fact, research shows that disabled people are using information and web-based technology more than others.

Still, it is important to remember that broadband to the home, where it is most needed, is unaffordable for anyone who is poor, and most people with disabilities live in poverty. The unemployment and underemployment rates for working-age persons with disabilities are over 60%. Our public benefits systems force people to live in poverty in order to receive essential services, such as in-home assistance. Another reason that broadband to the home is so important is that a large proportion of people with disabilities don’t drive, and these days public transit services are being cut to the bone. Broadband technologies in public libraries will do little good for people who face great challenges to get to the library.

Most people with disabilities are not going to be able to afford broadband technologies unless there is much more serious infrastructure investment and prices come down much further. The irony is that broadband could be an essential tool for someone with a disability to get out of poverty. Education and entrepreneurial opportunities are just two relevant examples of what broad band can deliver.

Our society’s increasing dependence on e-mail, cell phones, voicemail and the Internet to work and communicate, creates an even greater need for public policies to ensure that people with disabilities are not left out of the digital revolution. The Triennial Review Order (TRO) released in late August by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), presents an opportunity to meet that need.

A key component of the TRO is the unbundled network element platform, or UNE-P. The FCC decides what elements of the telephone network local companies are required to “unbundle” for competitors. Elements include the copper wires leading to consumers’ homes and even the switches at the local company’s central office. States are then free to decide what rates the elements are to be set at. It is clear from the lack of current infrastructure investment that the existing model, which is criticized by all companies, is not working. Unless the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) sets a fair price for UNE-P, why would incumbents or competitors invest in broadband?

A September 2001 report from the Alliance for Technology Access notes that California often leads the rest of the country in its policies and practices with respect to people with disabilities.1 According to ATA, “If we can identify models that effectively serve Californians with disabilities through a well-functioning assistive technology system, we may create some important models for the rest of the country.”2

Attaining these benefits for people with disabilities as well as all consumers, requires that California regulators implement policies that promote network investment in advanced technologies and services. The technology to deliver broadband is available and costs are falling. With the right regulations in place, greater broadband deployment will occur and prices will continue to fall. This will not only benefit California’s 6 million people with disabilities, but all Californians.

1 “Assistive Technology Connections: A Summary of Meeting the Needs of Californians with Disabilities,”
Alliance for Technology Access, September 2001.

2 Id. at p.2.