Sherri Turpin is the managing director of ZVRS and Purple Communications.
A common thread that connects seemingly different stories in this column is the existence of assistive technology as a means of combating structural ableism. Society is built for and by able-bodied people, just as society favors men and whites; America was finally founded by a bunch of white men. The needs of disabled people – especially in this technologically dominating age – are a prime example of diversity and inclusion. Accessibility is so important, not just for technology, but for life in general, because accessibility of things is exactly what we feel integrated into. That our worldview is so undervalued by even the most ardent advocates of diversity and inclusion is evidence of this systemic ableism. To a large extent, what makes this neglect so frustrating is that we don’t just want to be seen as human beings – we want to show, especially through technology, that different perspectives lead to innovative, enriching solutions that have the potential, everyone regardless of their abilities to help.
Look at the country’s telephone system. Revolutionary as it was, Alexander Graham Bell did not invent the telephone sensitively for the disabled. Its basic premise remains to this day: people can talk to each other from a distance, but the machinations you use to do so assume that both parties can hear. Likewise, Apple has undoubtedly made the iPhone the most accessible PC ever made in the past decade and up, but phone calls still work the way Bell intended. For example, to make them available to a deaf person or someone with a speech delay, you will have to jump through a relatively complex set of hoops to set it up. In other words: the conventional telephone call is (and always has been) inaccessible to someone who cannot hear.
As I said before, society is built on an ableist foundation.
Bridging the communicative gap between the hearing and the non-hearing world is of great importance to Sherri Turpin. Turpin is the CEO of ZVRS and Purple Communications, a telecommunications company founded in 1982 that specializes in video relay (VRS) services for the deaf and hard of hearing. “Most of my leadership team is deaf [and] Our company is working hard to bring modern communication technology to our deaf, hearing impaired and deafblind users, ”she said in a recent email interview with me.
VRS is a technological extension of the relay services that states like California must provide to the deaf and hard of hearing. As a child of a Deaf adult, I grew up using the California Relay Service with a TTY. Whenever my parents wanted to call a hearing family member or friend, they chose CRS first. The switch would then voice what the person on the other end of the call had said (using TTY). VRS is conceptually the same except you are dealing with Video Relay, it is more of a sign language interpreter and video than text.
Turpin is frustrated with the “lack of functional equivalence and equal access” in telephone communications for the deaf and hard of hearing. The Video Relay Service is funded by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), but Turpin said consumer advocates discovered that VRS is now failing to provide a number of key services that hearing people take for granted – like more. The lack of these functions is exclusive.
This inaccessibility belies the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act that the country’s communications infrastructure would include a “functional equivalent” for people with disabilities. This is a notable distinction, given that the ADA (as it is known colloquially) recently celebrated its 31st birthday and much has been done about the advancement of the law and its pitfalls. The lack of a modern communication system for the deaf and hard of hearing is another example of how antiquated the ADA is in terms of regulating our digital-first world. Turpin noticed the dichotomy when she watched the White House commemorate the ADA’s death and told me she had seen “two different views of progress” through legislation. As much as the people of Washington celebrated the ADA’s monumental accomplishments, she said it was also true that the FCC received comments from over a thousand deaf Americans pleading “not to be left behind in a digital world.” [and] to ask for their basic human rights. “
“With reasonable investment from the FCC, the Video Relay Service can end the isolation of many in the deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind community [sic], open new doors to work and education, and enable full connectivity with family, friends, colleagues, government agencies and businesses, ”said Turpin. “[This] Connectivity, which is critical to enable full independence and the great contribution of deaf, hard of hearing and deafblind Americans. “
As the FCC prepares to determine the future of video relay service, Turpin recently penned an opinion column for The Hill calling for the agency to continue investing in technology. She repeated many of the talking points in her article during our interview, the biggest point being that she is “frustrated every day that VRS can’t keep up with the advanced phone innovations everyone else is using.” Even so, Turpin is “so proud to be part of this movement,” she told me.
A key ally in the fight for telecommunications equality is Acting Chairwoman of the Commission, Jessica Rosenworcel. Nominated as interim chairman after President Biden was sworn in, Turpin said it “looks likely” that the FCC will continue to fund VRS. The reason, Turpin added, is Rosenworcel’s recent comments that “functional equivalence is the foundation of our telecommunications services policy” and that “if we improve access to communications for millions of people with disabilities, we will strengthen our economies, our civic ones Life, and our nation. ”All in all, Turpin is optimistic that this year will be“ significant changes and improvements ”for VRS, led by Rosenworcel. Turpin hopes the needs of people with disabilities will get as much press coverage as net neutrality, which is another area of responsibility for the FCC.
As Turpin wrote for The Hill, “The Federal Communications Commission has an opportunity to correct this injustice in the coming weeks, and it is their duty to do so.”
A recurring theme in my interview with Turpin was functional equivalence. The fact that she (and countless others) has to beat the drum so loudly and constantly for equality speaks for the deeply rooted structural ableism of society. In other words, our country’s infrastructure clearly does not prioritize people with disabilities; Just as the white male privilege dominates our institutions, so too does the privilege of the disabled. The fact that this mission is so personal to Turpin is exactly why accessibility and the voices of people with disabilities should be valued more. If not you, dear reader, it might be someone you know and love who, in one way or another, needs shelter. Thinking differently as if you were invincible is – you guessed it – playing with long-entrenched ableist stereotypes.