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Statement of Chairman William E. Kennard
In the Matter of Implementation of Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996

Section 255 represents the most significant opportunity for people with disabilities since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. We cannot overstate its importance to the 54 million Americans with disabilities. To be unable to use telecommunications makes it next to impossible to get job, call 911, things many of us take for granted.

For this reason alone, the failure to ensure access for people with disabilities comes at great cost. After all, limiting access for 54 million Americans deprives this country of a wealth of ideas and ability. However, there is another important benefit that comes from this proceeding: we all are better off as our society becomes more and more accessible. We all benefit when people with disabilities become active in our communities and in society as a whole. In addition, curb cuts, speaker phones, and vibrating pagers, things we all now take for granted, were all originally designed as "disability solutions."

Section 255 mandates that telecommunications service providers and equipment manufacturers make their products accessible to people with disabilities, if it is readily achievable to do so. In complying with this mandate, I want industry to focus its resources on achieving the end goal: getting as many accessible products in the hands of consumers as possible. I understand that flexibility helps companies to innovate, and innovation will yield the most accessible products.

For companies needing guidance on how to make their products accessible, this NPRM proposes processes that we would expect companies to undertake to meet their obligations. Companies should have processes in place to ensure the consideration of accessibility issues at the beginning of their design and development process -- and on an ongoing basis. These should include internal processes as well as outreach efforts to disabilities groups. Companies should assess whether it is readily achievable to make their products accessible to the full range of disabilities, including those affecting hearing, vision, movement, manipulation, speech, and interpretation of information.

I hope that by having incentives in place for companies to consider accessibility issues on an early and ongoing basis we can significantly reduce the number of complaints that reach us. I also hope that consumers and companies will attempt to work out accessibility problems before we get involved, and we will encourage consumers who have not contacted their equipment or services providers to do so.

But once we do get a complaint, we should treat it as a high priority. Today we are proposing a special "fast track" process for Section 255 complaints, designed to resolve many accessibility complaints informally and providing consumers quick solutions and freeing manufacturers and service providers from the burden of more structured complaint resolutions. We will not hesitate to use our more traditional enforcement processes, however, in cases in

which our fast track procedures do not result in solutions. And let me be clear: given the importance of Section 255, we propose to employ the full range of penalties available to us under the Communications Act to enforce Section 255 wherever necessary to ensure compliance.

Finally, I want to emphasize that the implementation of Section 255 is a priority of the Commission's and a personal priority for me. I pledge to commit the resources, staff, and training to give meaning to this mandate -- and to ensure that no American is left behind in the telecommunications revolution.