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Introduction to the Conference

Judy Harkins

RERC on Telecommunications Access

Technology Access Program

Gallaudet University



This conference is sponsored by the RERC on Telecommunications Access, which is the center in which Gregg Vanderheiden at the Trace Center and his staff and our staff at Gallaudet collaborate.  The center is sponsored by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.


About every five years, each of the RERCs hosts a State of the Science Conference as part of their center’s scope of work.  The purpose of the conferences is to bring together experts to share current research, emerging trends, and new technologies and how they will impact disability access and assistive technology for people with disabilities.


For this particular conference we chose to focus on a single topic rather than addressing the entire realm of telecommunications.  We are taking the opportunity to look more deeply into emergency communications.  In recent years, there have been some excellent conferences, such as the National Organization on Disability’s conference on Emergency Preparedness for People with Disabilities.  That was wonderful groundwork.  Now we are seeing some other conferences popping up that are more specific within the area of emergency and disability.  For example, a recent conference sponsored by the Interagency Committee on Disability Research looked into egress from buildings for people with mobility disabilities.  This drilling-down is necessary for people to be able to move ahead, incorporating disability access into the specific but disparate activities of emergency management. 


I was looking at the attendance list and trying to categorize the 160 people who have registered for the conference.  There are about 65 people here who are from federal, state, or county governments.  There are about 50 from industry, including consultants, and another 30 from non-profit organizations and universities; and a few whom I could only categorize as “other.”  A rough guesstimate is that about 25% of you are people who would identify yourselves as being deaf, hard-of-hearing, blind, or deaf-blind.  There are many other people with such disabilities in the audience but they are not self-identified, because we're acquiring disabilities as we go along in life, even though we may not yet need accessibility considerations for emergency communications.  But if we live long enough most of us will.





The first objective of the conference is to identify needs and gather possible solutions for accessible emergency notification and communication.  One of the ways that we've gathered information on needs is to look at existing reports and talk with others, especially people in consumer groups, over the past year.  We also want to get input from this expert audience that we have.  In your packet there is a blue form.  We ask you to write down any thoughts that you have at any point during the conference that you would like to share with us so that we can summarize these in the proceedings.  We will not have time for everybody put in their two cents' worth during the conference program; and some people are more shy than others about doing that anyway.


The first question on the form is, Do you think there is a need for research and development in an area, and if so, please describe it.  The second question asks, Do you think that there are needs for public policy development or change, or programs or new funding in this area?  And if so, please describe.  The third question is whether you have any other recommendations.  We encourage you, as you go along through the conference, to jot down your thoughts.  You don't have to include your name, but you can if you want to.  We'll collect the forms toward the end of the conference.


The second objective of the conference is to encourage interaction among industry, government, and consumer experts around this topic.  We'll be distributing a participant list to you during the conference so that you will have contact information for others at this conference for follow up afterward.


Also to encourage interaction, we're having a reception after today's program, sponsored by our exhibitors.  Our exhibitors also enhance the interaction among experts.  We've brought in people with specialized expertise, consulting companies, companies that provide new products that can be used in emergency communications, government agencies with emergency communication responsibilities, and projects in the area of emergency communications and disability.  We thank the exhibitors for enriching our program and for sponsoring their exhibits.


The third objective is to create a literature in this area.  Sometimes it's very hard to find information about this topic.  It's hidden in a variety of documents and the base of knowledge becomes somewhat of an insider or specialist area.  To gather information in one place, we’ve asked our presenters to write brief summaries, and we will also have a video archive of the conference that is being sponsored by the National Organization on Disability in cooperation with TV Worldwide.  So there will be both a video form and a text form of our conference, available at here .  There is also a resource page pointing to dozens of documents on the topic.






Even though we are drilling down into one topic, it is still quite a large topic.  In developing the conference program, there were two influences.  One influence was framework that was developed by the Global Standards Collaboration of which the Telecommunication Industry Association is a member.  They said, how can we get a handle on all of these different forms of emergency communications?  They came up with some general categories that have been modified over time, but I will give you the version of the categories that helped me to conceptualize what we needed to cover.


The first category is government-to-citizen communication.  The government needs to tell us something in a hurry.  It may be a warning, it may be an event, it may be recovery information.  In our program you will see that we have several presentations giving up to date information about this type of communication.  The Emergency Alert System and NOAA Weather Radio are just two examples. 


The second category is citizen-to-government.  We need to contact a responder or an agency with resources, to let them know about our need or provide information about an incident to them.  In the program you will see this reflected in presentations about access to telecommunications in general, and in particular, access to 9-1-1.


The third category is citizen-to-citizen.  This is the largest category because it relates to diverse situations.  You are at work, or you are in a store, and your employer or the store personnel need to get information to you because of an emergency.  It has to do with calling friends, family, and others to let them know about emergencies, check on them, and share information about recovery.  For a large percentage of people, when an emergency occurs, the first notification is from another person in our environment.  Someone just walks up and tells us.  If you are deaf or hard of hearing, that method of notification is not accessible to you.  So people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing are looking for alternatives instead of depending face-to-face communication.  As Dr. Fernandes said, some deaf federal employees in the DC area want to come here if we have an emergency -- which is a challenge for the university.  You will see the citizen-to-citizen communications addressed in presentations about general accessibility of communications technologies and about network recovery issues.


The final category is government-to-government.  I am sure that you are all aware that we've had problems in that area -- where one part of the government has a failure in communication with another part of the government, perhaps police and fire having problems communicating with each other; or when the Federal Government, state, and local authorities are having problems communicating with each other.  That is a topic that we will not address in this conference.  We just couldn't cover everything, and although there may be people with disabilities working in those sectors, we're focusing on only the first three categories.


Technology Focus


The second general influence on our program was the mission of our center.  I want to emphasize that communication technology is our focus.  We're an RERC, and therefore that's our focus.  We realize that technology doesn't solve all problems.  We realize that technology is not a substitute for being prepared to face an emergency.  But communication, as Dr.Fernandes said, is key in an emergency.  When it's disrupted it causes untold harm.  And communication technology plays a very large role in the lives of people with disabilities.


We're attempting to look across industry and government, so we have presenters who analyze the situation, the resources and implementation questions – rather than have vendors present about their own products.  This is an attempt to achieve a neutral-analysis approach that fits the role of our center.


Public policy is woven throughout this issue, as you know.  It goes hand in hand with technology.  Public policy will be woven throughout the presentations, and I am sure that some of your questions will have to do with policy.  We also have one session on public policy tomorrow morning, on access to 9-1-1.


We'll be considering technology migration, so we're not just talking about what can be done in the near future, but what may be coming farther down the road and what will need to change to make it accessible.


We'll be looking at technologies that are not primarily intended as tools for accessibility, such as wireless devices and e-mail, as well as some that are designed just for accessibility, such as relay services to 9-1-1.


Consumer Needs


The selection of specific topics in the program was heavily influenced by consumer articulation of needs and analysis of gaps, and in particular by Cheryl Heppner as a primary author of the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Consumer Action Network report which she will be talking about in a moment.  This report has been enormously helpful in communicating to the field about what problems exist.


We asked Janina Sajka to write a White Paper on the needs of blind consumers for emergency communications because that information was not out there.  We asked her to fill that gap, and she will present on that topic this morning.


Again, welcome!  I hope I’ve given you a clear framework for the conference, and if you have any questions, please contact any of us on the RERC staff and we'll try to help you in any way that we can during the conference.  Thank you


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