Electronics Industry Bad Attitude Affirms Need for Accessibility Legislation

On June 10, 2010, at the House Subcommittee hearing on H.R. 3101, partisan differences between Democratic and Republican representatives provided a lively and charged atmosphere for the almost 200 attendees at the hearing. At the root of these tensions was the publishing of an op ed by Gary Shapiro of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) that attempted to slam H.R. 3101 with some tired old accusations that it "would not result in more products being accessible or more innovative designs. Rather, it would result in overly burdensome compliance costs, less variety of products and would hinder United States competitiveness in the global market."

Rep. Markey told Shapiro that what the op ed said was "untrue." However, nothing would stop Shapiro who piled it on at the hearing, stating that the undue burden standard would be a "choke collar" on his members after also stating that "mandating universal design is an innovation killer" among several other similar undocumented, unproven and untrue assertions.  For Markey's effort to counter Shapiro's diatribe, Ranking Member Cliff Stearns (FL) accused Markey of emotionalism and then proceeded to tell the hearing attendees what he thought Shapiro meant, in essence, defending Shapiro's assertions and speaking for him!

Markey also asked COAT witness Sgt. Major Acosta what his opinion was of CEA's solution for accessibility -- which is to have a federal Advisory Council on accessibility. Acosta's response was that "it would result in nothing." For asking one witness what was his opinion of another's statement, Markey was accused of "slime-ing" the panel by Rep. Terry (NE) who thought it inappropriate to ask witness questions like this.

Despite the verbal fireworks, COAT witnesses earlier had done a remarkable job raising the disability point of view. Lise Hamlin (HLAA) said that we want an equal opportunity to benefit from advanced communications technologies. She noted how HR 3101 would establish a Real Time Text standard, important in emergency communications, affirmed that the bill would benefit people who are blind, deaf people, and people who are deaf-blind and others like herself, with a hearing aid and a cochlear implant. She also stated “accessibility should not be subject to a popularity contest” and averred that accessibility spurs innovation, among other points. She also told the committee "it would be absolutely fabulous to pass the bill this year," i.e., the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)!"

COAT witness Sgt Major Jesse Acosta (Ret. Army), an ACB member, noted that he can’t see the critical information found in TV emergency news scrolls, and reported his cell phone Musique has a flat key pad that he can't use and has to ask others to dial for him. He also thanked Apple for their efforts to bring products to market with so much accessibility built-in and out-of-the-box for people like him who are blind but reminded everyone that "80% of blind people can’t afford the expensive stuff." He also stated he "wants HR 3101 passed because industry forgets about blind people and those with hearing disabilities."

Witness Walter McCormick (USTA) said his organization prefers H.R. 3101 over Senate bill S. 3304 due to better technological parity. He also emphasized the amount of time and work done by the organizations in his trade association with the disabled community to reach consensus legislative language.

James Assey, Executive VP of NCTA, among other points made, seemed to say they support reinstatement of video description but they have concerns "about cost, utility or usage, and how to operationalize it." He also noted how his trade association's members have benefitted from some (recent) discussions with disability representatives.

Among several points made, witness Bobby Franklin (CTIA) said they don't want to give their records to the FCC when complaints would be filed under the new compliance provisions in H.R. 3101. They also want limits on new accessibility requirements and "to have no responsibility for 3rd party applications." 

The hearing opened with a positive & encouraging statement from full House Energy & Commerce (E&C) Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (CA) who said "It's time to bring Americans with disabilities across the digital divide" and stated he wants to bring the bill to the floor at this momentous time, the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (VA) gavelled the hearing, and in closing said -- despite the obvious intransigence of some industry organizations -- that he was still looking for a consensus bill.

Other congressional representatives at the hearing, some asking questions and some not were: Rep. Jay Inslee (WA); Rep. Marsha Blackburn (TN); Rep. Parker Griffith (AL); Rep. Cathy Castor (FL); Rep. Bob Latta (OH); and Rep. Doris Matsui (CA) who issued a press release the day of the hearing saying she was now co-sponsoring H.R. 3101.  Rep. Blackburn said she wanted things "to slow down" which left advocates wondering what speed she has in mind as a draft bill much like HR 3101 was first published in December 2007. Since that time many new devices have entered the marketplace, few with usability and accessibility for people with sensory disabilities.  Rep. Griffith noted that Helen Keller was born and grew up in his Alabama district and Rep. Inslee asked some good questions about how to ensure accessibility. Advocates noted also that Rep. Anna Eshoo (CA), a member of the House Subcommittee, while not attending this hearing, had also signed on as a sponsor of H.R. 3101 by the hearing date.

COAT noted many company representatives at the hearing, for example, Apple, AT&T, and Panasonic. Many COAT affiliate leaders attended such as from AAPD (including four AAPD summer interns!) AG Bell and NAD. Other disability organizational representatives also attended such as from UCPA, NFB, Blinded Veterans' Association, CaptionAction2,and VetsFirst. Several FCC officials attended including from the CGB (Deputy Bureau Chief Karen Peltz Strauss) and Wireless Burea (Elizabeth Lyle and Susan Kimmel) and the FCC's disability office, DRO (Greg Hlibok).

Witnesses written statements are on the Subcommittee website and may also be attached below as they are sent to us. Please feel free to add to this story in the comment section below if you attended the hearing and heard or saw anything important missed in this report.

6 Comments

I'd hate to think it was

I'd hate to think it was controversial to listen to what a wounded veteran had to say, in any context.  I'd also hate to think that the bill was being portrayed in partisan terms that don't fit it at all!  We have co-sponsors and advocates from all points on the compass, trying to do the right thing.