Telecommunications Access for People with Disabilities


Of adults age 65 and older, 50 percent have a disabling condition that makes telephone use difficult. Under the 1991 Americans with Disabilities Act, telephone companies must establish relay services so that customers with hearing disabilities can have affordable access to telephone service comparable with that of the general population. With new services and technological capabilities being developed throughout the telephone network, meeting the needs of people with disabilities may become more complex.

In 2008 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandated that consumers with hearing and speech disabilities must have access to a telephone network that is “functionally equivalent” to voice telephone services. Telecommunications relay service (TRS) and newer, Internet-based versions such as video relay service (VRS) and Internet protocol (IP) relay, enable people with hearing and speech disabilities to communicate with hearing people via voice telephone. The FCC order also established a system for assigning traditional ten-digit telephone numbers to Internet-based TRS users. Internet-based TRS users can choose among providers, as well as keep their phone numbers if they switch providers. In addition, TRS users must have functionally equivalent access to emergency services. The FCC also requires service providers to obtain and maintain information on the physical location of their Internet-based TRS users—as it does with interconnected Voice over Internet Protocol providers—and to automatically route the users’ 911 calls to appropriate emergency services.

The US Access Board, another federal agency, is also contributing regulatory input. The board’s function is to develop and maintain design criteria for the built environment, transit vehicles, telecommunications equipment, and electronic/information technology. As a result, it is now formulating accessibility criteria for information and communication technologies, such as websites, telephones, and copiers. It is also considering revisions and updates to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act. Section 508 requires that when federal agencies develop, maintain, or use electronic and information technology, they must ensure that it is accessible to people with disabilities (absent an undue burden). Section 255 imposes similar accessibility standards on telecommunications equipment manufacturers and service providers.

People with all types of disabilities—sensory, physical, speech-related, or cognitive in nature—benefit from access to data and communications technology. To maximize that access, service providers, manufacturers, and officials must address relevant market trends and technological innovations. Detailed, product-specific guidelines on accessibility are less useful than an approach that will accommodate the evolution of these technologies. For example, convergent technologies support the growing demand for all-in-one products, such as mobile devices that offer voice and text communication, web browsing, and media players. As a result, specific guidelines on devices such as cell phones could become outdated.

Telecommunications Access for People with Disabilities: Policy

Ensuring access

In this policy: Federal

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should ensure successful implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Telecommunications Act to ensure access for people with all types of disabilities as technological advances occur.

The FCC should develop, in consultation with representatives of the disability community, standards to ensure that advances in telecommunications services and networks are designed to be affordable and accessible to people with disabilities. The Department of Justice should enforce these standards.