Almost a year in: A brief look inside DBCA

Picture of Stevie Wonder and Mussie Gebre wearing suits at the White House in October 2010
Picture of Stevie Wonder and Mussie Gebre wearing suits at the White House in October 2010

Last year, I wrote an inaugural blog titled Why DBCA? While we have not kept up with our blogging, so much has happened inside DBCA as it strives to fulfill its mission. In this blog, I’d like to reflect on some of our mission-specific efforts.

One of the issues that we have been actively promoting is educational equality. This can be seen in DBCA’s deep involvement in supporting the Alice Cogswell and Anne Sullivan Macy Act, which was re-introduced earlier this year. For years, DBCA worked hard, together with partner organizations, to push for instructional services, such as qualified teachers and interveners in order to level the playing field for students who are deafblind. DBCA sent representatives to advocacy-related events in Washington. Providing students with disabilities with appropriate supports not only ensures that they are able to realize their potentials and live independent lives but also serves the economic interests of our country.

A second issue that we have been working on is the need for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to more appropriately reflect the unique needs of America’s deafblind population. DBCA believes that the ADA in its current form places an emphasis on either vision or hearing loss to the exclusion of the dual nature of deafblindness. The result is that many of its provisions need to be updated in order to reflect the combined nature of vision and hearing loss. For example, what happens if a deafblind person wants to go to a local grocery store and does not have a way to communicate with anyone who cannot sign? What if he or she wants to dine out at a local restaurant and nobody can sign? How do we ensure that he or she is not excluded from the many facets of our national life because the law currently does not provide him or her with the means to fully participate in society? That is where the solution may lie, in part, in the provision of a support service provider (SSP), which we continue to strive to gain the support of policymakers.

While the provision of an SSP is crucial to addressing some of the gaps in accessibility that the ADA’s current provisions do not address, technology is another vital area of focus. One of the issues facing deafblind consumers is the continuing need for significant investment in research and development of more innovative technologies to address the communication, travel, independent living and other needs. But one particular area that continues to see very limited success is telecommunication. In the case of those who rely on Braille, for instance, currently about the only solution is the use of Internet-based relay service provided by Sprint, although efforts are being made to provide video-based communication. Compare this with the explosion in the number of choices consumers who are not deafblind have when it comes to telecommunications. That is one reason we have been closely working with with the Federal Communications Commission to promote innovation in accessible telecommunication technologies.

What can we do as a society to address the needs of a low incidence and underserved disability group? The population of the U.S. is fast aging, and this could place a significant strain on society as a result of age-related combined loss of vision and hearing. Other countries are making investments in social and educational services and technologies to meet the needs of the disability community, and a number of countries already provide services similar to an SSP. Perhaps they were inspired by America’s pioneering disability rights law: the ADA. But the United States needs to continue leading the way in innovative technologies and services in order to foster equal participation in the 21st century American society. That is what we at DBCA have been doing and will continue to do: pushing for for policies and practices that promote innovation and inclusion in the land that put a man on the moon and whose inventions dramatically changed the way we live — think of Google, Facebook, Microsoft Windows, Apple iPhone. Perhaps these companies should use their collective wealth and innovative power to create truly accessible solutions to level the playing field for communities like ours.