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Andrew Phillips: Champion of Change

Image: Andrew Phillips, policy counsel for the National Association of the Deaf and a Gallaudet alumnus, has been recognized by the White House as a "Champion of Change."

Andrew Phillips, policy counsel for the National Association of the Deaf and a Gallaudet alumnus, has been recognized by the White House as a "Champion of Change."

Alumnus and lawyer Andrew Phillips has a favorite quote by Martin Luther King: "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice." Phillips says it gives him hope that the world will become more accessible and equal for everyone. He is doing his part to give credence to Dr. King's words as one of eight "Champions of Change" named by the White House this summer as individuals who embody the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Phillips is a policy counsel for the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), advocating for the rights of deaf and hard of hearing people. After graduating from Gallaudet in 2006, he earned his juris doctor degree at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, where he was a member of the Hastings Science and Technology Law Journal, and was recognized as "Best Oral Advocate" in his Moot Court class. During his junior year at Gallaudet, Phillips was a congressional intern for U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), working in her Capitol Hill office. Between college and law school he did an internship with the director of policy/general counsel at the National Council on Disability.

The White House recognized Phillips for his advocacy work in the deaf community, which includes his role in helping the NAD implement the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, passed into law by President Obama in 2010. The law sets new standards that allow access to new Internet and digital communication technologies for deaf, hard of hearing, and low-vision people. "I'm very grateful and lucky to be working at NAD, which allows me to make a difference, and this recognition as a Champion of Change generated good publicity for NAD, sharing its accomplishments with the public," said Phillips.  

Phillips provided key testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee in May on the ADA and Entertainment Technologies on improving accessibility from movie screens to mobile devices. "Congress is currently considering two bills to mandate captioning," Phillips said.  "The first, S.555, will mandate that every movie theater with two or more screens provide both open and closed captioning as well as video description. The second, S.556, seeks to amend the Air Carrier Access Act to require that in-flight entertainment such as movies shown on airplanes be captioned."  

The previous year, Phillips testified along with representatives from Gallaudet University, Georgetown Law Institute for Public Representation, Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Inc., and the American Foundation for the Blind before the U.S. Copyright Office regarding the Digital Millennium Copyright Act on the need for exemptions in certain situations for closed captions. These exemptions would permit third parties to include-or enhance-video captioning without requiring permission from copyright owners. "In its decision, the Copyright Office recognized the accessibility needs of our community," said Phillips, but ultimately chose to grant limited exemptions for research purposes.

"I cannot say enough good things about Andrew," said Dr. Christian Vogler, an associate professor and director of the Technology Access Program in the Communication Arts Research Department at Gallaudet, and a long-time collaborator with Phillips on communication access issues.  "Andrew and I established a great working relationship right from the beginning.  ... We've worked on quite a range of topics-video relay services, Internet captioning, advanced communication services, and emergency alerting, to name a few. The benefit of Andrew's work (and his and our cooperation with the wider circle of advocacy groups) is that we've gotten some stronger rules on accessible technology from the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), which implements parts of the Communications and Video Accessibility Act, than we might have gotten otherwise. I believe that this kind of cooperation, especially in the wider circle of the consumer advocacy groups, has made our arguments in front of regulatory authorities much stronger than they would have been if we had each been on our own."

A lifelong belief in following the rules led to Phillips' interest in the law. Playing board games with his family as a child in Berkeley, Calif., he strictly abided by the rulebook. "I like working with a system of rules, whether playing games or advocating for equality under law," said Phillips. "Society has a set of laws that we agree to follow, and I was always interested in how rules reflect society." Phillips was also influenced by his parents, who advocated on his behalf for a fair and equitable education. "My parents, along with other parents of deaf children, lawyers, and allies worked hard to set up a deaf/hard of hearing class at my elementary school in Berkeley," Phillips said.  "Their advocacy also made it possible for us to mainstream with regular classes for parts of the day." Phillips' parents later enrolled him at the California School for the Deaf, Fremont, where he was named valedictorian of his graduating class in 2001.

As policy counsel for the NAD, Phillips works closely with a numerous federal agencies, including the Department of Justice, the Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Copyright Office.  For example, he worked on relay access for deaf and hard of hearing people, accessible online programming through captioning, allowing deaf and hard of hearing people to serve in the U.S. military, and advising businesses on how to make their products and services more accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people.  "Our advocacy work has resulted in good or much improved regulations," said Phillips.  Sometimes a policy changes quickly, but some take years, Phillips explains.  He frequently collaborates with Gregory Hlibok, '90, chief of the Disability Rights Office at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for the past two years.  Phillips has worked with several others in advocating for shorter deadlines for requirements related to the captioning of online programs and on what kind of video playback products must support captions, he said.   

When a law is passed, Phillips explained, the appropriate federal agency develops rules and regulations for its enforcement, and these rules and regulations are updated from time to time.  "A large part of my work is meeting with federal agencies and writing comments related to revisions and updating these agency regulations," he said. "We, of course, advocate for regulations that expand and improve access for deaf and hard of hearing people.  For instance, the ADA requires the provision of relay services, and, over the years, the FCC has authorized many new kinds of relay services such as VRS. Every time the FCC makes adjustments to rules about relay services, the NAD and other organizations are working hard to advocate for the best possible rules for our community."

Phillips is committed to his work as a legal advocate for deaf and hard of hearing people, and plans to continue his career in this area. "I like being able to advocate for positions that I believe in, and I like seeing how my work benefits people in my community," Phillips said. "I care deeply about people in the deaf community and their civil rights and I enjoy the challenges of my job at NAD."

Phillips doesn't believe that inaccessibility exists to intentionally exclude deaf people; rather, it is an oversight. "Many things are designed without people like me in mind," said Phillips. But the law, he added, "is a great element for change." Phillips' goal is to end inaccessibility for deaf and hard of hearing people by seeing high-quality captioning enacted in a number of venues that deaf people commonly use -- announcements at train stations, in-flight entertainment, and on YouTube.  "As a lawyer, I am part of a committed group of disability rights advocates who are working to change the world. I fight for change so that the next generation will have full and equal access," Phillips said. "I look forward to the day when I and others like me will be fully included in the communications of our society."

--By Megan Clancy

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