In her role as a Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Mignon Clyburn is well aware of the vital role technology plays in the lives of individuals with disabilities.
On Tuesday, she witnessed its impact first-hand during a visit to Perkins School for the Blind, where she chatted with students during a technology lesson and met with Perkins leadership to discuss the FCC’s National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program, commonly known as iCanConnect.
“We were honored to welcome Commissioner Clyburn to campus,” said Betsy McGinnity, executive director of Training and Educational Resources at Perkins. “She and the FCC have been important partners in our mission of making the world more accessible for people who are blind and deafblind.”
Perkins has worked with the FCC since 2012 to administer iCanConnect, which spends up to $10 million annually to provide communications equipment to individuals who have significant combined vision and hearing loss and meet federal income guidelines. Equipment ranges from accessible mobile phones to text-to-speech software, and is matched to each client’s specific needs.
During the visit, Commissioner Clyburn spoke of her ongoing efforts to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable communications services. She’s been traveling across the country for more than a month speaking with constituents as part of her “Connecting Communities” tour. One of her goals moving forward is to raise awareness of FCC programs like iCanConnect, especially in rural communities.
“We’re trying to educate individuals,” Clyburn said. “People don’t know how to help their neighbors. (With today’s technologies), no one should be living in isolation.”
To combat that problem, Perkins recently organized an “equipment demo day” in West Virginia, said Marcia Brooks, who oversees iCanConnect at Perkins. The event brought together equipment vendors, prospective consumers, educators and students who are deafblind.
“We hope this can be a replicable model for other states as well,” said Brooks. “We’re trying to reach as many people as possible.”
Perkins President and CEO Dave Power told Clyburn about several other projects involving technology at Perkins, including the development of affordable refreshable braille technology and a mobile app to help people who are blind find bus stops.
“We’re constantly looking at things like indoor navigation, robotics, things that could change the lives of people who are blind and deafblind,” he said.
Clyburn also visited a Perkins technology class led by teacher Kate Crohan. Students Logan and Shae described how they use technology to keep up with schoolwork and communicate with teachers, friends and family.
“I use my braille notetaker typically for schoolwork but I also use it in my free time to email my friends,” said Logan, 21, who has moderate hearing loss in addition to visual impairment. “Sometimes I’ll even listen to music on it.”
Before departing, Clyburn spent time in the Perkins Museum learning about Laura Bridgman, the first individual with deafblindness to receive an education. The experience was a welcome reminder of the unique challenges faced by individuals with disabilities, she said.
“I’m uplifted by this visit,” she said. “We are your partners in this. We want people to be more enabled and I’m looking forward to what happens next with Perkins through the FCC.”