The phone is ringing. “Hi, it’s John,” greets the female voice of an interpreter pleasantly. “How are you today?”
The person who originated the call is John Cunniff, president of the Deaf-Blind Contact Center in Allston, Mass. Cunniff, who is deaf and has low vision, is using an Internet service and interpreter known as a “video phone,” a program designed to provide telephone communication to people who are deaf or hearing impaired, including those with low vision.
For Cunniff, a world without his video phone, computer and specialized software that enlarges print so he can read and send email would have a tremendous negative impact on his life, his independence and his happiness.
“It would be very, very difficult for me,” he said. “I would need to ask friends or family if they would be willing to interpret for me, and they would need to be right here next to me. They all have their own lives and can’t always drop everything to come help me.”
For Cunniff and more than 1 million people around the country who have combined hearing and vision loss, today’s advanced telecommunication technology can be lifechanging. Yet despite its promise, the cost of this kind of technology renders it out of reach for many, due to its specialized nature and limited demand. Those who do find a way to cover the cost must also tackle the task of learning how to use it.
So goes the challenge of iCanConnect, the campaign to spread the word about the Federal Communications Commission’s new National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program (NDBEDP). The program aims to provide Americans who are deafblind and fall within 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines with communication technology that will make the world more accessible. It includes specialized products such as braille displays and computer screen readers, but also products made popular by the general public such as iPhones and iPads that have built-in accessibility features.
Perkins and Helen Keller National Center For Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults (HKNC), based in New York, are leading this campaign, unrolling the first steps of a two- to three year pilot program that will spread the word about NDBEDP to all 50 states as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. For states that have partnered directly with Perkins and HKNC, the two organizations will take lead roles in management, equipment distribution, training and reimbursement for purchases.
“Accessibility and equality for people with disabilities is the most critical civil rights movement of our time,” said Perkins President Steven Rothstein. “NDBEDP is not simply about individuals who have vision and hearing loss being able to use the telephone, computer or email with ease. It’s about their right to be contributing, involved members of society. And without equal access to today’s communications technology, that’s simply not possible.”
NDBEDP was mandated by the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, a law championed by Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Sen. Mark Prior, D-Ark., and passed in 2010. It requires people with disabilities to have equal access to new communications technology. iCanConnect aims to connect individuals of all ages, but especially those age 65 and older who may have acquired vision or hearing loss later in life and might not consider themselves deafblind. Perkins and HKNC, which have a history of collaboration, knew it was a challenge they could take on together.
“The mission of the Helen Keller National Center is to enable each person who is deaf-blind to live and work in his or her community of choice,” said Executive Director Joe McNulty. “This critical technology access program accelerates those efforts, but only if people know about the resources. Together, we’ll get the word out, coast to coast.”
Perkins, too, has a long history of pioneering work in the field. Beginning with the education of Laura Bridgman and Helen Keller, two of its most famous students who were deafblind, the Deafblind Program at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass., remains one of the few worldwide dedicated to teaching students who are deafblind. Perkins has also advocated for improved services for this population at state and federal levels of government for decades. And Perkins’ sales division, Perkins Products, distributes equipment for people with all kinds of disabilities and trains them to use it. All considered, the partnership between Perkins and HKNC made a lot of sense, said Betsy McGinnity, director of Perkins Training and Educational Resources Program.
“NDBEDP is going to be really transformative,” she said. “We estimate that there are 1.5 million people in the U.S. who are deafblind. We believe about a million or more are eligible for this program. We’ll be changing lives.”
The FCC officially launched NDBEDP in July, beginning the long process of identifying and alerting eligible consumers across the country. Though the work has just begun, Jerry Berrier, an access technology consultant who has been training individuals who are deafblind to use communications equipment for years, doesn’t have to imagine the lifechanging impact this program will have.
“A sighted person has a lot of options for communicating,” he said. “You can pick up a phone, you can write an email or you can send a letter. But a person who is deaf and blind has very limited options on how they can reach out beyond the room in which they’re sitting. I would say these folks are more dependent on technology than the average person by far.”
In many states, HKNC will take the lead in helping eligible consumers determine which tools will help them achieve their communication goals. After purchasing the appropriate technology, one-on-one training will help the user grow comfortable enough with the new tools to use them with confidence.
Approaches to training will vary from person to person, depending on each individual’s comfort level, said Berrier, whom Perkins has hired to help manage NDBEDP’s database and train consumers. Berrier was born blind and reads braille, but because he does not know sign language, he often works in tandem with an interpreter to ensure full interaction with his trainee. And he schedules training sessions with the same individual for as long as it takes for that person to reach a comfort level with the device. “If someone is excited, already familiar with some of the technology and wants to jump right into it, it doesn’t take so long,” said Berrier. “If not, it can be totally overwhelming at first. But I have the patience. I know how to take it a step at a time. I have worked with graduate students and people who have intellectual disabilities. It doesn’t matter. This training can work with anybody, as long as they have the desire to learn something new.” Ultimately, the planning and commitment, the financial cost and the time investment to put the right equipment into the hands of people who will benefit is worth the effort many times over, he said.
“The greatest challenge of having sensory disabilities is that they can isolate you from the rest of society. They really can just remove you and make you feel like you’re not an integral part, not even a necessary part of the world,” Berrier added. “Having this technology – this ability to participate and interact with others, and remember your value and place in the world – is so significant.”
“Equal access is the key,” agreed Cunniff. “With this program, the world could open up to people who are deafblind in ways they have not experienced before.”