By John M. Williams Congratulations on your impending inauguration. When we spoke last June (See BW Online, 6/21/00, "Bush: 'The ADA Is a Good Law'"), you gave me some thoughtful answers on disability issues. I was impressed with your responses and thought they boded well for the disabled community. Since then, the world has certainly turned your way. By the end of this month, you'll be President of the United States.
But even big chiefs need counsel from specialists. So I'm hoping to give you a few tips on how to get off to a good start with the disability community. It's your inauguration planning. You see, a lot of people with disabilities are very interested in the event and would love to watch or attend. But they're feeling left out. Here are some simple ways you could make them feel more included in what will be a very important day for you and our country.
NO SCREEN READERS. First, let's start with your Web site. When I went to your official inauguration Web site (www.inauguration-2001.org), I found that it had some nice pictures and images. But unfortunately, your designers haven't yet put in place the Web coding that would allow screen-reader programs to vocalize the contents of the pages on your site. These programs are used by many blind and visually impaired people to surf the Internet. Adding the code -- called alternate HTML tags -- wouldn't require too much work. It's pretty routine practice now in the cyberworld.
I also couldn't find an e-mail address for information requests. In fact, the only contact information I saw was two phone numbers and a mailing address in Washington, D.C. Many of your disabled citizens -- in particular those who are blind, visually impaired, paraplegic, or quadriplegic -- rely on e-mail to communicate with the outside world. They can't necessarily pick up a phone or send a letter. So providing them with an e-mail address in case they have questions would be a tremendous service.
On your contact page, neither of the phone numbers accommodates TTY (text teletypewriter) devices, which many deaf and hearing-impaired people use for communication. Someone from your office told me the inaugural committee does have relay operators standing by to translate TTY conversations. That's a good first step. But many deaf people don't like to use relay operators. They prefer direct connections with TTY machines on both ends of the wire. I suggest you place someone familiar with TTY on your inaugural committee staff and provide that service quickly. It doesn't cost much -- a few hundred dollars for a TTY device and a bit of extra training for one worker.
CLINTON DID IT. I'd point out that President Clinton's inaugural committee did use several TTYs to communicate with the deaf and hearing-impaired. Clinton's inaugural committee also produced brochures and informational materials about the various inaugural events in braille and large-type formats to accommodate blind and visually impaired attendees. For those who were totally blind and not braille-proficient, the Clinton-Gore team recorded inaugural information on cassettes.
When I called your inaugural-committee headquarters, I was told there were no plans to take those steps. That's certainly not in the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These simple gestures would help you communicate with thousands of citizens and show many thousands more that your heart is in the right place. In fact, in the Washington area, you could find many people to help you with this task -- the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, for example. It wouldn't take more than two or three days to create these materials, and they would have a lasting impact.
Mr. President-elect, many of these oversights could have been avoided if the inaugural committee had consulted the disability community on how best to include them in this event. In fact, some disability advocates I spoke with claimed they had volunteered their services but did not receive a reply. And all of the major disability organizations I contacted, including the American Association of Persons with Disabilities and the American Council for the Blind, said no one from the inaugural committee had contacted them. Believe me, the disability community would love to be asked.
FRIENDLY FORMATS. To be sure, there will be some opportunities for the disabled to participate in your coming-out party. Gallaudet University will provide sign-language interpreters when you and Vice-President-elect Dick Cheney take the oath of office next week. Real-time captioning of the swearing-in ceremony and parade will be provided by TVWorldwide.com in Chantilly, Va. The TV broadcast, which also will be available on the Internet, will be offered in a format accessible by persons with disabilities.
Webcasts also will audio-describe and caption-broadcast interviews at the following inauguration celebrations on Jan. 19 and 20: Texas State Society 2001 Black Tie & Boots Inaugural Ball (www.texasstatesociety.org/bbtb.htm), e-Government & Technology Inaugural Gala (www.marketaccess.org/event_inaugural_gala.asp), and eNaugural.com Ball (www.enaugural.com).
But you could still set a far higher standard for accessibility. Here's one way to look at it. Aside from reaching out to millions of potential Republican voters over the Internet, the various inaugural activities could give your Administration an opportunity to show business leaders the advantages assistive technology offers people with disabilities. That's good for America and good for business. And it shouldn't cost too much.
IT'S THE LAW. You've received $18 million in federal funds for your inaugural gala. I would bet taking the steps I've suggested above would cost less than $200,000. And I might point out, those federal funds are authorized by the ADA. The law mandates that programs funded by the federal government be made as accessible as possible to the disabled.
Now, I know you have this in your heart. When your father, George H.W. Bush, was running for President, he had people working for him who were knowledgeable about disability issues and alternative ways to communicate to disabled people through various assistive-technology products. Many of these same people are working with your transition team and inaugural committee.
Their knowledge and sensitivity on assistive technology could easily be tapped for the inauguration and for other efforts. I would also strongly advise you to hire disabled people to work on future events, if it's too late for them to make an impact on the inaugural committee. Having them on staff would go a long way toward averting shortcomings the next time you plan a big party or state affair. I believe the apple has not fallen far from the tree. And if your father's example is any indication, you, too, will include all Americans on your proudest day. It's not too late to do the right thing. Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online.
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