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The Power of Technology, The Power of Equality

The White House and Commerce Department hosted an event featuring technology with the power to improve the lives of people living with disabilities.

Twenty years ago, a simple, standardized way to link together pages of text via the Internet was invented, and the World Wide Web was born. Perhaps equally amazing as this innovation are all of the commercial communications advances that were either nascent or not even invented then—email, Smartphones, GPS, and the rechargeable batteries that power laptops, cell phones, and cameras to name a few. For as powerful as these inventions were in changing the lives of so many Americans, we recognize that technology has the power not just to entertain but to enhance our work-life experience and connect us to our families and communities.

This is particularly true for the approximately 54 million Americans with disabilities. In fact, technology has the ability to enable Americans with disabilities to participate fully both in their personal and professional lives. Imagine a person who is deaf video chatting with loved ones using sign language where a decade ago interpreter-assisted phone service was the only option. Or consider that the blind can navigate their Smartphones and computers on par with their colleagues and friends. In recognition of the powerful role that technology plays in all of our lives, the White House on Monday continued its celebration of the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act with a Technology Showcase, in partnership with the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Commerce.

Yesterday's events began with a morning session at the White House, where participants from across the country heard from a wide range of Administration officials. U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra described how the White House is working with entrepreneurs, innovators, and technologists to find new ways for people with disabilities to access information, communicate easily, and enable Americans to live more independently through mainstream and assistive technology.

Also yesterday, Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra and the Office of Management and Budget’s Administrator for Federal Procurement Policy Dan Gordon issued a memorandum reinforcing accountability and responsibility measures that all Federal agencies must comply with to make government websites and other technology accessible as required by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The Commerce Department announced a nearly $15 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant to expand broadband adoption among people who are deaf and hard of hearing and provide them with tools to more fully participate in the digital economy.

Monday afternoon the celebration moved to the Commerce Department where nearly 40 companies, organizations and agencies demonstrated the power of technology to level the playing field for Americans with disabilities. The afternoon program included remarks by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski, several outstanding performances by deaf actors and dancers, and inspiring video testimonials by advocates with disabilities on the life-changing impact that technology has had for persons without their hearing or sight. Two dozen technologists and disability advocates then convened to "brainstorm." It seems like a simple idea but the truth is that the two groups don't always speak the same language. Our hope was that in 90 minutes we could come up with a couple of real-world problems that an Internet-based application or service could potentially solve—or at least make better. For example, could crowdsourcing on the Web help plot the accessibility of local sidewalks or building entrances so at the click of a mouse or tap of a Smartphone a person could know which entrance to a building he or she was headed to was easiest to enter? There were many good ideas discussed and it marked the beginning of a conversation we believe will ultimately bear fruit as the creative juices continue to flow.

In much the same way as the World Wide Web connected our spirit, ideas, and ingenuity, we need to ensure that the rapid pace of technological change continues to expand the horizons of individuals with disabilities as it has for others, no matter who they are or where they live.

Although yesterday’s events marked an anniversary, the future must hold the same promise that the ADA represented in 1990 and now in 2010—the ongoing commitment that Americans with disabilities can utilize advances in technology to enhance their lives and work.

Kareem Dale is Special Assistant to the President for Disability Policy
Scott Deutchman is the U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Telecommunications