New access for a new century: we sit down with Karen Peltz Strauss

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Wednesday, 28 August 2013 10:18am

At the recent M-Enabling Conference hosted by the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network in Sydney, one of the keynote speakers was Karen Peltz Strauss, Deputy Bureau Chief at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the USA.  Peltz Strauss has been involved in access to media and information by people with disabilities for many decades, working from both the consumer and regulatory sides. Media Access Australia’s CEO Alex Varley caught up with Peltz Strauss at M-Enabling to discuss the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA). Peltz Strauss was a major player in the development of the CVAA and now has the task of implementing the provisions of the Act in her capacity as a regulator.

Genesis of the CVAAof

The origins of the CVAA lie in actions started in 2005, by Peltz Strauss, after some consultations with others in the field. Clearly, the access provisions of the Communications Act in the USA had delivered telecommunications and television access, but they were not keeping up with the times, particularly with new technology and emerging ways of delivering content to consumers. A common  approach for advocates to obtain disability access legislation on communications issues, and one that had been used in the past was to “piggy-back” it onto other pieces of related legislation. As Peltz Strauss describes it, there was a cable franchising bill being put together in 2005 and this seemed like an opportune moment to push along some access provisions. 

Peltz Strauss undertook this work largely on her own after consulting with fellow advocates about details. “I had experience writing legislation, had worked in the field for many years and was prepared to push it along.” With the support of Congressman Markey (who would later play a major role in the CVAA), Peltz Strauss drafted provisions, testified before Congress and waited. Ultimately, the cable bill went nowhere, but it served as the catalyst for what eventually became the CVAA as a separate and exclusive bill dealing with access. 

A movement is born

In 2007, Peltz Strauss approached a number of prominent people in the disability sector seeking support for a second tilt at the access legislation. Among those were Jenifer Simpson, Paul Schroeder, Eric Bridges, Rosaline Crawford and Mark Richert. The group formed what they called the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT). 

“It started with the support of 10 organisations, within a couple of weeks it grew to 30, then 150 within a year and ultimately about 300 within two years. Clearly we had struck a chord,” said Peltz Strauss.

“One of the main issues was that at this time, new technologies were coming through to supplement traditional TV services and they were actually causing people to lose access to television that they had gotten in prior US laws.”

The original core group took on various roles, from publicity (including using the newly embraced social media) to advocacy.  Peltz Strauss focussed mainly on drafting the legislation. Meanwhile, COAT had created a movement that could deal with the scale of persuading 100 Senators and more than 400 Congress people to back the legislation. Peltz Strauss felt that support was essential: “The grassroots support showed that the need was strong and it was across the board, not just one group of people dealing with a single issue.”

Getting CVAA into law

Ultimately the CVAA was passed through both Congressional houses unanimously in 2010.  While initially support was slow, the forthcoming 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), to occur in July 2010, provided significant momentum for COAT’s advocacy efforts. The ADA was a major milestone in American disability law and it was felt that passage of the CVAA would be one way of maintaining the progress of disability access.  In the spring of 2010, a push for the CVAA was driven politically by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the disability community’s “superhero” Congressman Markey (who is now a Senator). The National Association of the Deaf helped move the bill along with the help of Deaf actor and Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God) and other efforts that garnered support from Republicans as well as Democrats.  Disabled advocates across America also talked, lobbied and discussed the issues with their representatives, and ultimately the CVAA became law.

Jumping the fence

Peltz Strauss had a unique role in the CVAA: first, she did considerable amount of work as part of COAT to get the law enacted, and then in March 2010, just a few months before the CVAA was signed into law (October 2010), she joined the FCC and became responsible for the law’s implementation. That task of making the CVAA work on the ground was aided by her having worked on the whole thing before. 

“I knew the arguments and discussions that had already happened so I had a lot of background information on what the rules and provisions of the Act were trying to achieve in practical terms, rather than being a third party that was trying to interpret something that was negotiated and developed by other people,” said Peltz Strauss.

However, it wasn’t that easy. As Peltz Strauss describes, “we set some very tight timeframes for the FCC for rule making and regulating and I was then in the hot seat having to meet all of those strict deadlines!” Those deadlines included 6 months to sort out a program to get communications devices into the hands of people who are deaf-blind, one year to develop rules for access to advanced communications (includes access to e-mail and Internet-based communications) and a requirement to report to Congress every 2 years (Peltz Strauss’s team had to write that report too).

She worked largely on her own on many of the CVAA matters for about 9 months until she was able to recruit others, initially from outside the FCC (including people who had worked on the CVAA campaign). Ultimately staff from all over the FCC became involved, not just the Consumer Bureau (the bureau that is typically responsible for disability matters).  This is one of the personal highlights for Peltz Strauss, “I think over 100 individuals throughout the FCC have played a part in the CVAA’s implementation, and that has been vital because the range of the Act’s coverage is vast and deals with some complex issues. That so many people are working on disability access in the FCC is unprecedented and amazing.”

Does the CVAA work?

The CVAA is designed to be forward-thinking – i.e., to take into consideration that technology will continue to evolve. Although the drafters of the legislation tried to predict as much as possible what would come down the pipe in the near future, communications technologies are changing so rapidly that they also tried to build flexibility into how companies could comply with the law’s mandates.

One area where there is some disquiet is access to “video clips.” The CVAA requires that all television programs that have closed captions must be captioned when those programs are delivered via Internet protocol – that is, on catch-up TV. The FCC’s rules implementing the CVAA currently exempts video clips on catch-up TV programs shown in the Internet from the requirement to have closed captions. While the regulations cannot be circumvented merely by chopping a full television program up, consumers are appealing an internal FCC ruling in this area as they want to see all video clips captioned, including short news pieces. Peltz Strauss says that the FCC is “waiting to see what the real impact is and what the market actually does.”   

What makes a campaign really work?

The CVAA has clearly been ground-breaking in requiring access across so many areas and will have an impact on the rest of the world, especially the provisions that look at making equipment, as well as video content, accessible. At the M-Enabling Conference, Media Access Australia released a report on the state of access for video on demand services in Australia. 

Peltz Strauss offered some insights into what were the major factors in making the campaign for the CVAA really work.

“First I would have to say facts. That is, the consumer groups had real data about the people who are served by the legislation and the impact that it would have – they showed the impact of providing access on social and economic affairs and on society as a whole. If people with disabilities have access, it reduces the economic burden on the rest of society in having to support the consequences of not having access,” said Peltz Strauss.

Peltz Strauss noted that retrofitting technology to achieve access is expensive, considerably more than including access in the first place. The experience of past campaigns and what happened when companies provided access (or didn’t provide access) is also useful as it shows real-world consequences of decisions. 

On dealing with politicians and policy makers, Peltz Strauss noted that the consumers who advocated for the CVAA knew that certain people would be effective in delivering their message. For example, they had a number of veterans testify before Congress. These are people who have served our country in times of war and returned with disabilities as a consequence of that. We owe them the respect of being able to participate in society. Their testimony really cut through and I think helped get support in Congress and the Senate.”

What of the future?

The CVAA does not provide universal media access. There are gaps and areas of content that are emerging and could become problematic.

“Stand alone, web-based or web-originated programs, are a growing content area. Not user-generated content, but soap operas and series that are shown exclusively on the Internet are not covered by the CVAA,” said Peltz Strauss. Again, the market may solve this, with companies like Netflix (which is the biggest online content subscriber service in the USA) providing captioning on a voluntary basis (albeit after legal action by the National Association of the Deaf). 

“The other one that comes to mind is removable media, such as Blu-ray discs. Consumers are now looking into issues around new home entertainment technologies and the extent they are providing access.”

And what is the future for Peltz Strauss herself? In 2007, she published A New Civil Right: Telecommunications Equality for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Americans about the first wave of communications access advocacy, but this stops before the CVAA. 

“There probably is a book around the CVAA and the journey that we went through and I have kept extensive notes and key documents from along the way. Maybe I should retire and quietly work on the book,” Peltz Strauss mused. 

Karen Peltz Strauss is the Deputy Bureau Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In this capacity, she oversees the FCC's implementation of federal laws requiring access to communication and video programming technologies by people with disabilities. Peltz Strauss holds a Juris Doctor University of Pennsylvania Law School and in 2011 was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from Gallaudet University for her work to expand communications access for people with disabilities.

At the M-Enabling conference Media Access Australia launched its report Captioning on Video on Demand Services which details the current state of play and proposes ways the Australian Government can take action.

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