The FCC yesterday voted to make permanent its iCanConnect program, which makes available communications and Internet access to low-income Americans with significant vision and hearing loss. The program makes available specialized equipment as well as installation, training, and other technical support.
The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Act, signed by President Obama in 2010, authorized the FCC to provide up to $10 million annually from the Telecommunications Relay Services Fund to support such programs. The pilot program—the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program—was launched in 2012.
Chairman Tom Wheeler said, “For thousands of Americans who have both limited sight and hearing, iCanConnect has helped ease their sense of isolation and open up the world in immeasurable ways. iCanConnect reminds us of this agency’s power to make a difference. Today, we move to make this life-changing program permanent.”
Wheeler quoted several of the program’s beneficiaries. Lori Siedman of Boston said, “I feel more equal, more independent. It changed my life.” And Ramona Rice of Riverdale, UT, said, “I’ve been given a chance to be a productive member of society.”
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn quoted Helen Keller: “Once I knew only darkness and stillness…my life was without past or future…but a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness, and my heart leaped to the rapture of living.”
Clyburn added, “For Americans who are deaf-blind, connecting with family, friends, and fully participating in society can be a struggle. Tasks that are seemingly simple for many of us, such as sending emails or chatting on the phone, can be difficult or even impossible for deaf-blind individuals if they do not have access to adaptive equipment. Thankfully, that is changing, through enlightenment and technological advances, we are slowly but surely breaking down longstanding barriers to enable more seamless means to communicate and engage.”
She added, “I venture to say that there is no way the visionary champion Helen Keller could have imagined how truly transformative technology would be for this and the next generation of deaf-blind individuals. Technology is enabling all voices to be heard, and we can now envision a wide array of hope and opportunities.”
Commissioner Ajit Pai also quoted Helen Keller: “Blindness separates people from things; deafness separates people from people.” Pai noted that technology—in the form of an automated Braille keyboard and display, amplified speakerphone, screen reader, or vibrating signaler—can help make a difference, adding, “But this new technology doesn’t come cheap. The cost of buying specialized equipment, installing it, and learning how to use it can exceed $5,000 per person. So Congress directed the FCC to allocate up to $10 million each year to support programs that distribute specialized equipment to low-income individuals who are deaf-blind.”
He called the pilot program a resounding success and urged a smooth, timely transition to a permanent program with no lapse in the equipment distribution process.
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel noted that the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Act was signed into law nearly five years ago, adding, “Of course, five years is a virtual eternity when it comes to the equipment we now use to communicate. That is why I am glad we are taking a fresh look at the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program in order to take this program from pilot to permanent…. Already, our efforts have helped nearly 2,000 people lead lives that are more productive, more connected, and more independent. I am convinced there is more good to do, more doors to pry open, and more opportunity to offer through this program.”
And finally, Commissioner Michael O’Reilly said, “The current pilot program appears to have helped a number of deaf-blind individuals live more independently and take advantage of education and employment opportunities.” But he called for clearly defined and demonstrable goals and a method to prioritize funding as demand grows.