Marcia Brooks came to Perkins in 2012 to serve as Project Manager for a pilot program mandated by federal law to support the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, also known as CVAA. The act updates the federal communications laws to increase the access of people with disabilities to modern communications. Brooks went on to serve as director of the program before retiring in 2022. Before coming to Perkins she worked in the National Center for Accessible Media division of WGBH, one of the flagship public broadcasting stations in Boston where she worked on media access, federally funded research and development grants, and served on Federal Communications Commission (FCC) advisory committees. Brooks, a white woman with ear length, short curly hair and black glasses is smiling in her photograph. She wears a white silk scarf decorated with large black smudges draped over a black and grey polkadot top.
Resources listed include the website for iCanConnect program and participant profiles.
This interview is a digitized copy of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Perkins School for the Blind. The interview was conducted on June 21, 2022, by Jen Hale. The audio and transcript provided have been edited to protect the privacy of the interviewee.
This oral history transcript may be quoted if cited. A preferred citation is provided. The interview may not be published in full except with the permission of the Perkins School for the Blind. For permission please contact [email protected].
Brooks, Marcia. “Marcia Brooks oral history interview conducted by Jen Hale,” 2022-06-21, Perkins Archives Oral History Project, AG176-2022-06, Perkins School for the Blind Archives.
Jen Hale: Today is June 21, 2022. This is Jen Hale. I’m here with Marcia Brooks, director of Perkins National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution program, also known as iCanConnect. We are conducting this interview virtually on Zoom because of COVID-19 restrictions. Marcia, are you OK with me recording this conversation?
Marcia Brooks: Yes, I am.
Hale: So what is your current role at Perkins?
Brooks: My current role is director of Perkins’ work on the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program, also known as iCanConnect. Although the program is enabled by stellar interdepartmental collaboration at Perkins, there’s an iCanConnect department that spearheads all of our efforts, and I am the director for that.
Hale: And can you tell me a little bit about what the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program, or iCanConnect, does?
Brooks: Sure. The name itself, which is long, National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program, encapsulates what it does and who it’s for. The program is for people with significant hearing and significant vision loss, some of whom would never even self-identify as deafblind. The program is for people who meet federal disability and low income eligibility guidelines, and the program distributes equipment and software, equipment that is both off the shelf and assistive technology, and training, all free to those who qualify to participate in the program, specifically for distance communication purposes to help people connect with others at a distance. It’s not for face-to-face communications.
Hale: OK, and can you describe your job and responsibilities?
Brooks: Sure. I have a staff of four people, who are responsible for enabling Perkins’ service in 22 states and US territories. This is a program that is mandated by federal law, the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, also known as CVAA, and Perkins is responsible for the program as certified by the FCC to lead the program in 22 states and US territories. And we are also solely appointed by the FCC to handle all of the national outreach for the entire program.
So our department is responsible for enabling those services in addition to supervising the people who get that work done. We also work very closely with our colleagues in the financial accounting services department and also Perkin Solutions, which is responsible for procuring the equipment for the consumers we serve. So my role has to do with supervising and directing the implementation of those services. We also work very closely with the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission. It is, as I mentioned, an FCC program, and it is my role to work with the FCC to ensure that we maintain our certifications for our work in the 22 states and US territories, report as required every month to all of the 56 certified entities in the program across the country. That’s including the District of Columbia, US territories, all the states. And so I’m responsible for reporting monthly on the impact of the national outreach that we conduct and also annually as published on the FCC’s website.
Hale: What is it like working with the FCC?
Brooks: It’s really rewarding, and I find it very meaningful. We work with FCC in a couple of different ways. The program started out as a pilot 10 years ago. We’re now in our 10th year. And the program has evolved quite a bit over the years. It’s now a permanent program. In fact, after the five year pilot, the program was made permanent, and the program goes in five year cycles. So there’s a couple of different ways that are pretty significant for Perkins’ national leadership role in this program.
One is the evolution of how to administer the program rules and what sort of policies evolve in terms of being consistent, and providing services, and determining eligibility. And over the course of the 10 years, I’ve worked very closely with the FCC. It’s the Disability Rights Office at the FCC, which is part of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau. So we’ve worked pretty closely on developing policies that align with the rules. When the program was made permanent, the FCC did what is called a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, and they put forth questions about how the public thinks that the rules should be structured for the program.
And Perkins filed comments with the FCC, public comments, and in fact, as a result of that work, Perkins is cited many, many times in the rules for the program. And another way that we work with the FCC is the FCC has– actually, the federal government has what are called Federal Advisory committees FACAs, they’re called, F-A-C-A. And I had worked on several of those in my prior position before I came to Perkins, but at Perkins, I and several other colleagues have had the opportunity to represent Perkins on their Disability Advisory Committee. So that is another opportunity to influence the FCC with recommendations that address, broadly, people with disabilities and, for our purposes, people with both significant hearing and vision loss.
Hale: Right. How did the program get started? And how is it connected to Perkins?
Brooks: Well, the program is mandated, I think I mentioned, by federal law, the CVAA, the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act. It’s also known as the 21st Century Act, the CVAA updates federal– actually, it was signed into law in 2010 by President Obama, and it updates the federal communications laws to increase the access of people with disabilities to modern communications. And it makes sure that the accessibility laws that were enacted in the ‘80s and the ‘90s are brought up to date with 21st century technologies, including digital, broadband, and mobile innovations.
And this CVAA, amongst all of the areas it covers, it required that the FCC implement a clearinghouse on accessible communication services and equipment. Now, some people have likened the 21st Century Act to the digital equivalent of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA, but this CVAA mandates that the FCC implement the accessible communication services and equipment clearinghouse. And that is how the FCC established the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program.
Hale: So it sounds like the program has the potential for a lot of impact. Can you talk about some of the impact that you’ve seen working on this?
Brooks: Sure. It’s an honor to do that. So the program has two requirements for eligibility. One is– I think just to set the stage for who’s eligible and how they’re served, one is that the person has to have a professional attest that their hearing and vision loss, their combined hearing and vision loss, meets the program’s definition of deafblindness, which is based on the Helen Keller National Center Act. And then the other is income, and the program income guidelines are 400% of the federal poverty guidelines every year. And that is an acknowledgment that the people who the program serves more likely have a higher incidence of underemployment or unemployment, so that’s why it’s considered a low income program but it’s still set at the 400% of the federal poverty guidelines.
And if somebody is already in a federal income assistance program like Medicaid or SSI, then they’re automatically eligible. So right away, that’s the kinds of people we serve in the program, I should say, provides, I think I mentioned, free equipment and training. So this is to enable distance communication skills, and the program serves a very wide variety of people. Some people were born with one sensory disability and acquired the other as they aged or had a progressive condition that led to both.
So you’re going to have some people in the program who are ASL users or they use braille. Others do not. So there’s a wide variety of ages the program serves as well. And basically, anybody in the program who’s been accepted gets an assessment first by a trained professional, who is going to talk to the person about their distance communication goals. Again, it’s not for face to face. The program doesn’t provide hearing aids or anything to talk to somebody that’s with them.
It’s to enable people to do things like– you may have a senior citizen or even elderly people who would say, I would like to learn how to text with my grandchildren. Or you might have a young adult who is interested in participating with their peers on social media. In fact, actually, people of all ages aspire to have social media interaction. Some more than others. You might sit down with somebody who says, I need to be able to contact my family when I’m on the road, so the kinds of impact that the program has served, the program’s– one of the foundational principles of the program is to increase independence and reduce isolation.
And that was never more evident as an opportunity to have impact as during the COVID pandemic. And we have seen situations where some people who had already gotten equipment were able to get notifications of their state’s shutdown that were going to happen very soon, and they had a chance to get their medications and groceries before that happened. There are people who already have experienced isolation that providing the equipment has helped address. One gentleman was not able to be present for the birth of one of his grandchildren, but he was able to Zoom with his new grandchild. So there’s quite a range of the different kinds of things people would sit down and say they would like to be able to do.
And then during the assessment, the trainer would say, OK, so you’d like to be able to use social media, text with your grandkids, all those different kinds of things. Again, the whole idea is that this is access to the same kind of 21st century things that everybody does to varying degrees. And then the trainer would say, OK, so you’re an ASL user or– whether people have– the extent to which they have residual hearing or vision impacts the decisions for the different kinds of equipment that they could use.
It’s also factoring in whether they have previous experience. Some people might have never used a smartphone before. Others have a really old phone and need an improved one. So after all of these different considerations are taken place, the equipment is ordered, and the training begins. But the kinds of outcomes that we have, we also profile some of these consumers who are willing to have their story told, and that’s on the iCanConnect website, icanconnect.org. And right from the top menu, you’ll see success stories.
Hale: So you’re about to retire. What year did you start working here?
Brooks: Well, the first year of the pilot program began on July 1, 2012, technically began on July 1, although the FCC was still ramping up. For them to operationalize a program like this, it’s, obviously, a huge deal. I started in August, so I’ve been with Perkins pretty much since the beginning of this program, which is now wrapping up its 10th year.
Hale: So was that year– where you were the director then?
Brooks: No, I was not.
Brooks: I was the manager, yes.
Hale: And did you come to Perkins for this program?
Brooks: I did.
Hale: OK. And I’m wondering if you have any first impressions from your early years at Perkins that you’d like to share.
Brooks: Well, that’s a great question, and it’s interesting to me to think of it as both a first, and current, and lasting impression. The impact that Perkins has globally, nationally, obviously locally, and directly in the school, it has not been my role to work directly with the students, but it has just been such a privilege to see not only the students, and hear them rehearse their music, and all of that but to see the inspiring dedication that the professionals who work with them have. And I just remember thinking, which I do to this day and I will always hold as an honor and privilege to witness, this inspiring dedication to meet each student where they are and enhance their lives. And that just struck me from the moment I got to Perkins, and it’s something I’ll always cherish.
Hale: So what do you know about people who are Deafblind that you think would be most surprising to the general public?
Brooks: Well, that’s a great question of many. The range of people’s hearing and vision loss just even to be accepted in this program, there’s certain criteria for what defines significant hearing loss and what defines significant vision loss. There are people who have congenital conditions that caused them to have very little to no residual hearing or vision. What would surprise people is to think that there are people who are considered Deafblind who may not even self-identify as Deafblind.
They were born blind. Maybe they lost a significant amount of hearing due to aging or vice versa. There are definitely conditions, such as Usher Syndrome, that result in a loss of both sensory abilities but present more prominently with one initially or sometimes– painting with a very broad brush here, there’s a lot of different reasons people acquire their hearing and vision loss. Some are congenital. Some have to do with other health issues.
But the result is that there’s a very wide range of people who are served in this program and in general. And I think the thing I would want people to know the most is that it’s a foundational premise of this program that there are different advantages to having access to technology or different services in different states that will help people who have significant hearing and vision loss have meaningful lives and participate in their community. And with iCanConnect, we always say that we help people connect with friends, family, community, and the world. And you’ll find a very wide range of people, some of whom have jobs and go to school and others who require a tremendous amount of help.
So there’s a very wide range, and we have seen that very wide range and the people that are served by this program. And the different training people need and the different devices that they need varies quite a bit. But it’s the right thing to do to provide these services and equal access to 21st Century communications and the other life services that they need as well.
Hale: What have been the most difficult or challenging aspects of your work, would you say?
Brooks: Well, there are several that come to mind. The most significant challenge has been, when you start to think about any segment of the population, you’re going to have a wide range of personalities and outlooks on life. And the people in this program are no different than any other segment of the population. Some people have positive outlooks. Some do not. It’s very difficult for somebody who does not have combined hearing and vision loss to fully put themselves in the shoes of someone who does.
It’s a privilege to work with people all over this country. We work in 22 states. We have partners and trainers in all of those to implement local services. We manage those relationships. There are other programs that we work with to vend access to our database, procure equipment for their program. And then there are other organizations in the country that are certified by the FCC to do the work, and we don’t have a professional relationship with them necessarily, although we sometimes– they ask us for advice and we are responsible for their national outreach service.
But there are people all over this country who know how to deal with the range of people that this program serves. For the ones that we deal with, we sometimes have people who are just so gratified at the impact that the program has made for them, and they’re very thankful about the equipment and the training. And we’re not here to be thanked, but there are people– the challenges are when the people feel entitled to things that either the program doesn’t provide. Or there’s a limited amount of money available in this program, and it’s up to each certified entity to determine how to serve the most people. And some people want the latest and greatest equipment whenever it comes out.
That’s not the model for this program. The model is to serve as many people as possible with new equipment. And if it’s still working after a year, it doesn’t necessarily mean because a new iPhone came out that– so there are people who have frustrations about that, and managing their expectations is sometimes a challenge. I want to say, more often than not, it is not, but that’s a direct answer to the question.
Hale: Thank you. You’ve touched on some of the rewarding aspects. Is there something that you would want to say to describe maybe what have been the most rewarding aspects of your work?
Brooks: Well, there are two answers to that question. One would be for the program, and one would be for being at Perkins. And I think I did touch on the things that are very meaningful to me about working at Perkins. I can’t even articulate the extent to which I’m just filled with admiration and pride for my colleagues and the different things that they implement locally and across the world. I’ve always loved speaking to the ELPs and seeing what Perkins does to influence in a meaningful order of magnitude the kinds of services that Perkins is most expert at in making those services more widely available across the world.
As far as the program is concerned, I have found it very meaningful to influence– to have a role in influencing the development of the program over the years, working with the FCC. We have forged very meaningful partnerships with organizations all over this country in the states that we’re certified– and US territories were certified to lead. There have been very meaningful, professional, rewarding relationships in service to the program and to the consumers we have the honor to serve. So there have been some consumers I’ve worked with directly. More often, working with my colleagues at Perkins.
One of the other things that’s very meaningful is that we established a very meaningful inter-departmental collaboration model that is not common in organizations, and I think it’s been acknowledged that– it’s easy to just sort of work in a silo in your department, or on your program, or whatever, but the nature of the success of Perkins’ leadership role in this program has been enabled by colleagues in different departments finding common cause to advance Perkins’ role in this program. And that’s been very meaningful to me, too.
Hale: I think that’s it. Is there something else you’d like to talk about?
Brooks: Well, there is another thought on what’s been meaningful to me. Because Perkins is solely responsible for national outreach, I think I mentioned that we’re responsible for reporting the impact, what our efforts have– what efforts we’ve conducted and the impact of them for national outreach, and what we have done pretty much since the beginning of the program is established a monthly national call for all of the 56 certified entities who work on the program and their staff. The FCC is a part of those calls as well. And we have been doing them by 800-number dial-in for many years, and with a lot more people video conferencing as a result of COVID, people really like the idea of doing these meetings by Zoom.
So I have for many years moderated these monthly meetings, and I’ve worked with the FCC on the agenda for each meeting, which, of course, we’re obligated to report on national outreach. But we’ve used these meetings as an opportunity to develop a community of practice for people who can share their expertise and their questions. Some of it’s got to do with questions about program administration, but somebody might have an idea about, geez, we just learned about this kind of equipment, and it really helped this person. Or does anybody know about this? Or we’re celebrating Deafblind Awareness Week with these public forums.
Or it’s just been a very sort of meaningful way to connect people with a vast amount of expertise and common cause to serve people in this program and advance the program. That’s also been a very meaningful thing to me, to get to invite that kind of community of practice and get to admire the work that so many others do across the country.
Hale: I can’t think– I kind of am wondering, what drew you to this field in particular? Is there a personal story you’re comfortable sharing? Or did it happen by accident?
Brooks: I had a career in public broadcasting, and the most recent of that before I came to Perkins was at WGBH, which is one of the flagship public broadcasting stations in Boston. People may be familiar with some of the programs that they produce that are seen all over the country and certainly online all over the world. But some people may not know that WGBH pioneered closed captioning, and WGBH pioneered descriptive video service, which is the separate audio track for descriptive audio that accompanies video programs. So WGBH has a service division that provides those services for both public broadcasting and commercial films, and television, and theaters.
But they also have a research and development arm, which is called the National Center for Accessible Media. And I was working at WGBH on other initiatives, and NCAM invited me to join them to help work on federally funded R&D grants for media accessibility. So I started working on media access, federally funded R&D grants, some of which I was the principal investigator on and others I joined in as a project manager or in those capacities. And so I had the opportunity to serve on several Federal Communications Commission, FCC advisory committees related to those grants.
And so I already knew people who were working on the passage of the CVAA. And when the grant work that I was funded to do wrapped up, it coincided with the launch of this program, and Perkins played a leadership role in helping the program to launch. And they needed help, and I applied.
Hale: And here you are.
Brooks: And here we are.
Hale: Well, thank you so much, Marcia. I really appreciate it.
Brooks: It’s an honor to talk about the work that’s meant so much to me. Very grateful for the opportunity to share the good work that’s been done by my colleagues and the FCC, and it’s a real lasting honor to have worked at Perkins and to have worked on this program. And I’m very grateful for the outstanding work you do for these archives and the opportunity to talk about this. Thank you.
Hale: Thank you, Marcia, and for your work.