FCC on Telecommunications Accessibility for the Disabled
(Manufacturers and service providers to accommodate disabled) (1450)
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released Sept. 29 new rules that are designed to give greater access to telecommunications technologies to the disabled. The rules and policies, serving to implement the Telecommunications Act of 1996, will require manufacturers of telecommunications equipment and providers of telecommunications services to accommodate the needs of the disabled whenever possible.
The introduction to the report on the new rules states that they "are the most significant opportunity for the advancement of people with disabilities since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990." Further, the report states that the intent of the new rules is to ensure that the estimated 54 million Americans with disabilities are not denied participation in the telecommunications revolution.
The disability provisions of the Telecommunications Act follow other actions taken by the U.S. Congress to improve access and opportunity for disabled individuals in the areas of education, employment, tax policy, transportation and technology that assists those with disabilities.
In stating the purpose of these new rules, the FCC report emphasizes the dominance of telecommunications in U.S. life today, the importance of telecommunications skills in the workplace and in achieving independence in everyday life.
Download the Section 504 Accessibility Handbook here or at the FCC web site
Following is the text of the introduction of the FCC order:
Before the Federal Communications Commission
Washington, D.C. 20554
In the Matter of Implementation of Sections 255 and 251(a)(2) of the Communications Act of 1934, as Enacted by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Access to Telecommunications Service, Telecommunications Equipment and Customer Premises Equipment by Persons with Disabilities
REPORT AND ORDER AND FURTHER NOTICE OF INQUIRY
Adopted: July 14, 1999; Released: September 29, 1999
1. In this Report and Order (Order) we adopt rules and policies to implement sections 255 and 251(a)(2) of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended (Act). These provisions, which were added by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (1996 Act), are the most significant opportunity for the advancement of people with disabilities since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. These provisions require manufacturers of telecommunications equipment and providers of telecommunications services to ensure that such equipment and services are accessible to persons with disabilities, if readily achievable. Congress has recognized that, although we are moving into the information age with increasing dependence on telecommunications tools, people with disabilities remain unable to access many products and services that are vital to full participation in our society. The purpose of sections 255 and 251(a)(2) of the Act is to amend this situation by bringing the benefits of the telecommunications revolution to all Americans, including those who face accessibility barriers to telecommunications products and services. The rules we adopt in this Order will have an historic effect on the ability of Americans with disabilities to access and utilize telecommunications technologies and services.
2. Our nation has an estimated 54 million Americans with disabilities. Persons with disabilities are the largest minority group in the United States, yet despite their numbers, they do not experience equal participation in society. Statistically, most Americans will have a disability, or experience a limitation, at some point in their lives. While only 5.3% of persons 15 – 24 years of age have some degree of functional limitation, 23% of persons in the 45 – 54 age range experience functional limitation. The percentage of those affected by functional limitations increases with age: 34.2% of those aged 55 – 64; 45.4% of those aged 65 – 69; 55.3% for those aged 70 – 74; and 72.5% for those aged 75 and older. The number of persons with functional limitations will also increase with time. Today, only about 20% of Americans are over age 55, but by the year 2050, 35% of our population will be over age 55.
3. Congress has responded to this need for access and opportunity for individuals with disabilities by passing landmark legislation in a range of areas: education, employment, tax policy, transportation and assistive technology. These laws include the ADA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997, the Assistive Technology Act of 1998, and the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which amended section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Congress has also passed legislation focused specifically on access to communications: Title IV of the ADA (telecommunications relay services) the Telecommunications Accessibility Enhancement Act of 1988, the Hearing Aid Compatibility Act of 1988, and the Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990. All of these laws recognize the importance of access to all aspects of society, and access to communications technology in particular.
4. Through the 1996 Act, Congress recognized the importance of access to telecommunications for all people. Telecommunications has become such a common tool that its use is essential for participation in nearly all aspects of our society. Today, most Americans rely on telecommunications for routine daily activities, such as making doctors’ appointments, calling home when they are late for dinner, participate in conference calls at work, and making airline reservations. Moreover, diverse telecommunications tools such as distance learning, telemedicine, telecommuting and video conferencing enable Americans to interface anytime from anywhere. Understanding that communications is now an essential component of American life, Congress intended the 1996 Act to provide people with disabilities access to employment, independence, emergency services, education, and other opportunities.
5. More specifically, telecommunications is a critical tool for employment. If telecommunications technologies are not accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities, many qualified individuals will not be able to work or achieve their full potential in the workplace. Congress recognized the importance of creating employment opportunities for people with disabilities with Title I of the ADA, which addresses the employer’s responsibilities in making the workplace accessible to employees with disabilities. As noted by UCPA (the United Cerebral Palsy Association), when essential job functions require the ability to use and operate devices and services, people with disabilities are at a disadvantage when these devices and services have not been designed with accessibility in mind. Unemployment among people with severe disabilities is roughly 73%, at a time when our country is experiencing the lowest unemployment rate in years. Persons with disabilities who are employed earn on average only one-third the income of the non-disabled population. The rules we adopt today complement Title I of the ADA by giving employers expanded tools with which to employ and accommodate persons with disabilities.
6. Access to telecommunications can also bring independence. The disability community has told the Commission of the frustration of not being able to check the balance of a checking account using telecommunications relay service, or not being able to tell if a wireless phone is turned on, or not being able to use a calling card because of inadequate time to enter the appropriate numbers. The rules adopted in this Order may be essential in bringing a great measure of independence to members of the disability community. Access to telecommunications services also plays a critical role in life-threatening emergencies. The Commission has received numerous reports from relatives of senior citizens saying that their elderly parents could live on their own, if only they had telecommunications equipment that they could use.
7. The benefits of increased accessibility to telecommunications are not limited to people with disabilities. Just as people without disabilities benefit from the universal design principles of the ADA and the Architectural Barriers Act (for example, a parent pushing a stroller over a curb cut), many people without disabilities will also benefit from accessible telecommunications equipment and services. Indeed, many of us already benefit from accessibility features in telecommunications today: vibrating pagers do not disrupt meetings; speaker phones enable us to use our hands for other activities; and increased volume control on public payphones allows us to talk in noisy environments. We expect many similar results from the rules we adopt today. More importantly, we all benefit when people with disabilities become active in our communities and in society as a whole. Congress clearly intended that these provisions would make a real difference in the lives of people with disabilities, and of all Americans. As the Senate stated in its report on these accessibility provisions: The Committee recognizes the importance of access to communications for all Americans. The Committee hopes that this requirement will foster the design, development, and inclusion of new features in communications technologies that permit more ready accessibility of communications technology by individuals with disabilities. The Committee also regards this new section as preparation for the future given that a growing number of Americans have disabilities.