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National Council on Disability Calls for Federal Legislation to Prohibit Telecommunications Discrimination for People with Disabilities

Friday, December 29, 2006

NCD #06-529
December 29, 2006 

WASHINGTON―The National Council on Disability (NCD) today released a policy paper calling on Congress and the Administration to end telecommunications and information services discrimination for people with disabilities.

The Need for Federal Legislation and Regulation Prohibiting Telecommunications and Information Services Discrimination(/publications/2006/discrimination) explores the need to adopt legislative and regulatory safeguards to guarantee equal access by people with disabilities to evolving high speed broadband, wireless and Internet-based technologies. Experience shows that as these technological innovations stake their claim in American society, market forces will not be sufficient to ensure such access. Rather, Congress, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and other federal agencies will need to step up to ensure that these communications technologies remain accessible to and usable by all Americans with disabilities.

According to NCD chairperson John R. Vaughn, “Our nation already has in place a string of federal laws and regulations designed to guarantee various levels of access to telecommunications products and services. But in addition to leaving gaps in coverage, these statutes are rapidly becoming outdated because the analog technologies upon which they were premised are being substituted with technologies that are digitally and Internet-based. As Congress, the FCC, and other agencies take on the daunting task of defining regulatory measures that will govern the deployment of these next generation communication technologies, they should include safeguards to ensure that people with disabilities will not be left behind. Potential and real accessibility barriers to many new technologies already exist. Inaccessible user interfaces on consumer equipment, lack of interoperable and reliable text transmissions, and obstacles to video and web programming all threaten the ability of people with functional limitations to have equal access to these products and services. Legislative and regulatory actions are urgently needed to eliminate such barriers and to safeguard future access to modern communications and information technologies and services, regardless of the form (text, video, or voice) or the transmission media (e.g., public switched telephone network [PSTN], Internet protocol [IP], wireless, cable, or satellite; copper wire or fiber optic network; dial-up or high speed) over which such information or communication travels.”

“Most important is that laws requiring the incorporation of accessible design be enacted now, when the costs and efforts associated with providing this access are still a mere fraction of the costs of producing mainstream products and services. The consequences of waiting too long will be severe: not only will retrofitting new products and services become far more expensive and burdensome; in the interim, there will be lost opportunities to and in employment, education, governmental services, e-commerce, and telemedicine. Moreover, the need for accessibility safeguards will only intensify in the coming years, as the nation’s growing senior citizen population contributes to the expanding number of people with vision, hearing, cognitive, and mobility disabilities who need such access,” Vaughn concluded.

Some of the recommendations include:

Communications Access

  • FCC or Congress: Extend the telecommunications accessibility requirements of Section 255 of the Communications Act to Internet-based services and equipment. Disability safeguards under the new legal protections should include, among other things, accessible and compatible user interfaces on end user equipment; a common standard for reliable and interoperable text and video IP and wireless communications; redundant ways of controlling devices and services; and access to user guides and technical support.

Video Programming Access

  • FCC or Congress: Clarify that existing captioning obligations apply to IPTV and other types of multi-channel video programming services that are Internet-based.

Universal Service

  • FCC or Congress: Allow Universal Service Fund (USF) support for broadband services to low income individuals with disabilities, so that these individuals can choose between public switched telephone network or broadband services when they are entitled to Lifeline and Link Up-type funding.
  • FCC or Congress: Require all IP-based providers (not only interconnected Voice over Internet protocol providers, as is currently required) to contribute to the USF treasury.

Americans with Disabilities Act

  • FCC or Congress: Require IP-based providers to contribute to interstate relay funds.
  • U.S. Department of Justice or Congress: Clarify that Web sites are covered under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act: Legislative Change

  • Expand Section 508’s coverage to entities that are otherwise covered under Sections 503 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

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