By Pam Greenberg
Legislative sessions in four states began this year with new assistive technologies in place to help those with disabilities be fully involved in the legislative process.
Newly elected Washington Lieutenant Governor Cyrus Habib (D), who is blind and will preside over the Senate during the legislative session, has been equipped with a special Braille system that allows him to know who among his Senate colleagues has requested to speak.
Senators push a button on a touchscreen on their desks, and the information is transmitted to the rostrum, where Habib can read a Braille list of lawmakers’ names, in order of their request. Habib had used a Braille reader and text-to-speech software in his previous terms in the House and Senate, but the rostrum system was set up specially by Senate IT staff upon his election as lieutenant governor.
Representative Lela Alston (D), who has difficulty hearing, helped test a new hearing loop system in a House hearing room at the Arizona State Capitol for the first time on Jan. 4. The Arizona Republic reported that Alston “heard the clear sound broadcast by the system via her hearing aids, and a huge smile spread across her face and she began to cry.” At the Arizona Capitol, the loop system is available in the House and Senate chambers, as well as in hearing rooms.
Hearing loop systems—technology that allows sound from microphones to be transmitted directly to newer hearing aids and cochlear devices so those with hearing loss can tap directly into the sound system, are considered a technological godsend by some. They eliminate background noise and amplify only the sounds from the microphone.
The Rhode Island General Assembly also installed the state-of-the-art hearing loop equipment in December at the State House. About 1-in-5 Rhode Islanders has hearing loss of some kind. “That’s a very significant segment of our population,” M. Teresa Paiva Weed (D), president of the Rhode Island Senate, says, “including many senior citizens who have been dedicated voters and taxpayers all their lives. They deserve to be able to fully participate when they come to the State House, just like everyone else. This is a good investment that I hope will encourage more people to come here, listen and be heard.”
The equipment will accommodate deaf or hard-of-hearing visitors in five of the most-used rooms in the State House: the Senate gallery, both House galleries, and in a Senate and a House hearing room.
For rooms without the loop system, the General Assembly is providing a new FM Assistive Listening Device system. Television screens also are available in the House Galleries so visitors can see closed captioning of the live broadcasts of floor proceedings.
The Florida Senate celebrated the opening in November of the newly renovated Senate chamber. Along with the new desks, carpet, paint and stained glass, a hearing loop system was installed. Other upgrades include a portable wheelchair lift to the president’s rostrum. The rostrum also was widened to allow space for a wheelchair.
Pam Greenberg follows technology issues for NCSL.