Direct Video Calling Increases Access for Deaf Citizens

Technology has given us incredible new tools to communicate with friends, family, and colleagues, and all Americans should enjoy these benefits — including, and especially, those with disabilities.

For those with hearing or speech impairments, digital video and other tools have helped these communities stay connected and working, rather than isolated. So, as the White House celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we’re announcing some new steps to help the government stay accessible to all Americans using the latest technology. 

We are pleased to announce that two agencies that routinely interface with the disabilities community — the U.S. Census Bureau and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) — will soon be taking up direct video calling technology to allow Deaf citizens to communicate directly with American Sign Language (ASL)-fluent call operators there. This work responds to the President’s 2011 executive order calling upon agencies to use technology to improve customer service, and is another step in the right direction.

Why? In general, citizens who are deaf reach federal agencies via third-party interpreters who facilitate their conversations by interpreting to those on the other end of the line. But broadband and faster connections have made direct video calling not just possible, but commonplace. With this technology, the result can be a call that is direct, clear, and can allow Americans who are deaf to communicate in American Sign Language. 

And that’s why the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) led the charge last year, as the first federal agency to accept direct video calls from the Deaf, so that ASL-speaking Americans could connect with customer service representatives fluent in ASL and communicate with them directly rather than via an interpreter. In June, the Small Business Administration responded to the FCC’s initiative by starting their own direct video communication pilot, which will allow entrepreneurs who are deaf to better access the Small Business Administration’s services. And today, two more agencies have joined this growing effort.

But the federal government shouldn’t be the only place that people who are deaf can benefit from these new tools. To push this technology even further, the FCC is also funding the development of a free open-source software platform to be released in May 2016 — the Video Access Platform (VAP) application — which would be HIPAA compliant and allow citizens with hearing and speech impairments to communicate via video and text simultaneously using any computer or smartphone. This new software will be designed to easily layer on top of direct video calling technology adopted by agencies today, and will also be available to companies, state and local governments, and non-profit organizations to help them improve their customer service as well. 

Once complete, this tool will help speed adoption of direct video calling, both by federal agencies and by the private sector, because every American deserves to have their voice heard.