Senator Ed Markey

The drama of politics and social media can sometimes overshadow the ongoing work of legislators who strive to improve all communities. We look to the champions—those who continuously work to protect the lives of people with disabilities and write and enact legislation that brings about change. Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) is one such champion.

In his decades long career, Markey has been a strong consumer advocate working on progressive policies, particularly focusing on climate change and energy issues. He draws the throughline from climate and environment to the health and wellbeing of some of the most impacted groups in our population: people of color and people with disabilities. He’s also worked for equitable access to technology and communications.

Before ascending to the Senate in 2013, Markey served in the US House of Representatives for 36 years, focusing on such issues as net neutrality, internet privacy, consumer data breach protection and online surveillance and expanding broadband access in the United States.

As a senator, Markey has served on various committees, including the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation; the Committee on Foreign Relations; and the Committee on Environment and Public Works. He has been a vocal and active member of these committees, working on legislation and conducting oversight on a wide range of issues within their jurisdictions.

ABILITY‘s Chet Cooper spoke with Sen. Markey about the numerous policies and legislation he has worked on over the years, as well as the significance of the legislation regarding people with disabilities.

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Chet Cooper: Was there a moment you became aware of disability issues?

Senator Ed Markey: Growing up in Massachusetts everyone knew of Perkins School for the Blind. But when I was a member of the House of Representatives, Perkins was in my district. I learned from its students, educators, administrators—and from communities across my district—of the importance of prioritizing justice and accessibility at the heart of lawmaking. Disability justice is health justice. It’s racial justice. It’s economic justice. The work of centers like Perkins is a living reminder that we have more to do to uphold the rights of people with disabilities.

At the turn of the century, I wrote the defining telecommunications laws on the books. I knew then that, to build a future connected by the internet, we could not leave people with disabilities unplugged from the conversation. Everyone deserves the opportunity to participate fully in the economic, social, cultural, and political life of this country. I continue to be inspired by the stories I hear from constituents and their families. Their futures have been made brighter by the tireless work of accessibility and disability justice advocates. I know the work is not yet finished, but the progress we have made encourages me in the essential fight for disability justice for all.

Cooper: Can you briefly describe ‘The Protecting Moms and Babies Against Climate Change Act’?

Markey: Climate change is a threat to everyone’s health, including pregnant people and babies. No expecting parent should have to worry about their health in pregnancy. We know that extreme heat and pollution, made worse by the climate crisis, pose a threat to maternal and infant health. Hotter heatwaves and worsened wildfires are linked to eclampsia, miscarriage, preterm births, and lower birthweights. If we fail to address these risks, health outcomes will only worsen. Climate justice means healthy pregnancies and healthy children. The Protecting Moms and Babies Against Climate Change Act will ensure the federal government better supports community-based efforts that promote maternal and infant wellbeing, especially in communities of color where families are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis. Health professional schools will have the resources and funding necessary to protect vulnerable mothers and uphold quality maternal care.

Cooper: Does this connect with the Green New Deal for Health?

Markey: Everyone deserves access to quality health care and to be protected from the climate crisis. Nine in ten Americans live in a county impacted by a climate disaster in the past decade. Nearly one in three Americans today lack access to primary health care. COVID-19 taught us that our health system is not ready for climate emergencies. We have an obligation to both protect communities from climate disaster and to expand health care access. We need a Green New Deal for Health.

The Green New Deal for Health is our roadmap to build a more just and equitable health care system—one that puts the wellbeing of our workers, patients, and planet first. We can build a health care system that protects people AND the planet. We have to decarbonize the health care sector in this country, which accounts for more than eight percent of our greenhouse gas emissions, and we need to provide Medicare reimbursement to help people with disabilities install lifesaving, resilient home infrastructure to protect their health in extreme weather and blackouts. We know that a green health care system is a resilient health care system that protects and ensures access to care.

Better access to care means people are more resilient to an intensifying climate crisis, and when a crisis hits – like a pandemic or storm – they will have somewhere to go. We have to fight to keep hospitals in underserved communities from closing their doors. The Green New Deal for Health would invest $130 billion over 5 years in community health centers and create accountability for health systems that close or reduce their services.

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Cooper: How will the ‘Community Mental Wellness and Resilience Act’ benefit people?

Markey: Climate disasters are displacing families and upending peoples’ lives all across our country. We know that hurricanes and wildfires leave more than a path of destruction in their wake. They leave frontline and environmental justice communities behind with the anxiety and stress of having to recover from disaster—deaths to mourn, injuries to treat, homes to rebuild, bills to pay. The mental health crisis in our country is rooted in systemic issues. From gun violence to climate change to an epidemic of loneliness, we need to understand the mental health crisis is a public health crisis. The Community Mental Wellness and Resilience Act would empower community led efforts to address mental health at a community-wide scale, rebuilding strong, connected communities that are more resilient to the challenges of today.

Mental health resources today are failing to reach these communities, especially for rural communities and Black, Brown, and indigenous communities, who are already often left behind by the health care system. That’s why my colleagues and I have introduced the Community Mental Wellness and Resilience Act. Our legislation would establish a first-of-its-kind federal program to expand access to community-based mental wellness and resilience programs that address climate anxiety and toxic stresses. These services are the least that frontline communities deserve.

Sen Markey on a tour of a field of solar power cells.

Cooper: You and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced the ‘Civilian Climate Corps for Jobs and Justice Act’, can you give us more detail?

Markey: Last Congress, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez and I proposed a Civilian Climate Corps—building upon the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps—to provide more than a million people with the opportunity to join the fight against the climate crisis. The Civilian Climate Corps would guarantee members a living wage and good benefits so they can act as climate champions in their communities, promoting climate resilience and laying the groundwork for a brighter, more livable future with justice at the center of its mission. This work will be made stronger by the more than 100 state and local service corps across the country who are already leading climate and conservation efforts.

Cooper: Did you expect Jessica Rosenworcel of the FCC to make her proposed video conferencing accessibility rules supporting your CVAA?

Markey: I am proud to work with our partners on the Federal Communications Commission and applaud Chairwoman Rosenworcel’s leadership on these issues. I look forward to working with the FCC on these proposals to ensure people with disabilities have full access to video conferencing platforms and other important services.

A lot has changed since I wrote the nation’s governing telecommunications laws years ago. Congress has an obligation to build upon those laws and ensure that accessibility and disability justice are never an afterthought. People with disabilities deserve equal access to the tools and technologies that define life in the 21st century – and that includes video conferencing. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, video conferencing has become increasingly essential for work, education, and healthcare, but many video conferencing services fall short for people with disabilities, leaving them disconnected. That is why Congresswoman Anna Eshoo and I introduced the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, legislation that will build on the CVAA and promote increased access in existing and emerging technologies. Our legislation would also require video conferencing platforms to incorporate built-in accessibility features, such as automatic captioning features, interpreters, and other assistive technologies.

Senator Markey’s “Greatest Hits” in Disability Policy and Legislation

Sen. Markey has led efforts in Congress to ensure that people with disabilities can fully access communications services and participate in the social, economic, recreational, and educational benefits of technology, social media, and telecommunications.

In 1982, Sen. Markey, then a member of the House of Representatives, worked to pass the Telecommunications Act for the Disabled to require essential telephones – defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as workplace telephones used by persons with hearing aids, emergency phones, and coin-operated phones – to be hearing aid compatible.

In 1988, he worked to pass the Hearing Aid Compatibility Act, which required most telephones manufactured or imported into the U.S. to be compatible for use with hearing aids. That same year, Senator Markey also worked to pass the Telecommunications Accessibility Enhancement Act, which required the government to ensure that communications with and within Federal agencies were accessible to people with hearing and speech disabilities.

In 1990, Congress passed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which includes provisions Senator Markey fought to secure – including language to establish the nationwide telecommunications relay service program, through which communications assistants or other technologies are authorized to facilitate telephone calls for persons who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have speech disabilities. Later that year, Senator Markey passed the Television Decoder Circuitry Act to require TV makers to ensure that new TVs with screens larger than 13 inches had the functionality to provide closed captioning.

In 1996, Senator Markey passed his landmark Telecommunications Act, sweeping legislation to usher in the next phase of the communications industry, which requires telecommunications services and equipment to be accessible to and usable by people with disabilities.

In 2010, Senator Markey’s landmark accessibility legislation, the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), was signed into law by President Obama. The CVAA updated existing communications laws to ensure greater access to modern communications services for people with disabilities by strengthening requirements for closed captioning for streamed video, expanding existing rules regarding described programming, and requiring the FCC to improve access to broadcasted emergency information beyond on-screen text alerts.

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In 2022, Senator Markey introduced his Communications, Video, and Technology Accessibility Act (CVTA) to build upon the success of the CVAA while addressing the pressing accessibility concerns of emerging and modern technologies, including livestreaming, virtual and augmented reality. The CVTA would also expand settings for closed captions and audio descriptions across all video programming devices, including televisions, smart phones, laptops, and tablets.

Markey has been a leading voice in calling attention to the ongoing impact of Long COVID and its chronic symptoms. In March of 2022, Senator Markey and his colleagues Senators Duckworth and Kaine re-introduced their CARE for Long COVID Act to boost research efforts and expand treatment.

Also in March 2022, Senators Markey, Duckworth and Kaine called on the Social Security Administration to improve, formalize, and communicate guidance on the consideration of disability applications for individuals with Long COVID. While SSA had issued some guidance, this required a positive COVID-19 test or diagnosis with limited exceptions which may have inappropriately limited access to disability benefits for Long COVID patients. The Senators urged the SSA to revise these requirements to improve access to benefits and in recognition of testing unavailability at various points during the public health emergency.

Sen Markey speaking outside the Capitol at a podium that states Asylum is a right

In May 2022, Senators Markey, Duckworth, and Kaine urged the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to better prioritize the needs of those at highest risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19 – seniors, people with disabilities, and the immunocompromised – in their response to the public health emergency. The Senators requested that the Administration consult these communities, publicly report data on hospital-acquired COVID-19 infections and deaths, clarify mask mandates still applied in health care facilities, and explore options to make high-quality masks available to high-risk groups.

Also in May 2022, Senators Markey, Duckworth, Kaine, Smith, King and Whitehouse led their Senate colleagues in a letter to the Senate LLHS Appropriations Subcommittee urging the inclusion of $125 million to address Long COVID.

Markey has been a leader on the issue of medical leaves of absence in higher education, calling attention to practices which limit disabled students’ access to higher education. In November 2022, Senator Markey wrote to the Department of Education and Department of Justice urging them to issue guidance on involuntary medical leaves of absences (involuntary MLOAs). Colleges and Universities utilize involuntary MLOAs to require students to leave their studies and campus life. It exposes them to undue financial, medical, and emotional burdens which make it harder for them to return to and complete their education.

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Markey has worked to prevent discrimination of people with disabilities and their participation in jury service. In March of 2023, Senator Markey and Congresswoman Katie Porter (CA-45) introduced their Disability and Age in Jury Service Nondiscrimination Act, an expanded version of their Disabled Jurors Nondiscrimination Act, to prohibit excluding a person from federal jury service on account of disability status or age. While Massachusetts and 26 other states currently prohibit excluding or disqualifying people from state jury service on account of a disability. Massachusetts and ten other states have prohibitions on age discrimination for state jury service.

Federal law does not yet prohibit the dismissal of potential jurors on the basis of disability or age.

In February of 2023, Senator Markey called on Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, to reinstate the company’s Accessibility Team and support the implementation of accessibility features on the platform. Under his ownership, Twitter notably removed automated closed captioning on Twitter Spaces, an audio -only livestreaming service. In his letter to Musk, Senator Markey wrote “Twitter has a responsibility to ensure that its platform is open and accessible to disabled users,” and underscored the need for the company to ensure users with disabilities can fully participate on its platform.

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