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FCC Rules and Policies Implementing Section 255: Summary
Statements: Kennard | Ness | Powell | Tristani
Commissioner Furchtgott-Roth statement will be issued at a later date.

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Federal Communications Commission
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This is an unofficial announcement of Commission action. Release of the full text of a Commission order constitutes official action. See MCI v. FCC. 515 F 2d 385 (D.C. Circ 1974).

JULY 14, 1999

News Media contact:
Audrey Spivack at (202) 418-0500
TTY (202) 418-2555

Promotes Independence in the New Millennium

Today the FCC adopted rules and policies to implement Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and Section 251(a)(2) of the Communications Act of 1934, that require manufacturers of telecommunications equipment and providers of telecommunications services to ensure that such equipment and services are accessible to and useable by persons with disabilities, if readily achievable. These rules will give people with disabilities access to a broad range of products and services - such as telephones, cell phones, pagers, call-waiting, and operator services, that they cannot use today.

Today's action represents the most significant opportunity for people with disabilities since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. The rules adopted today require manufacturers and service providers to design telecommunications equipment and services with the needs of people with disabilities in mind. In developing these rules, the FCC relied heavily on the Access Board guidelines for equipment developed pursuant to section 255, months of productive discussions with interested parties from the disability community and industry, and a careful analysis of the appropriate precedent under the ADA and other statutes designed to remove access barriers.

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.

Access to telecommunications can bring independence. The disability community has told the FCC 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 in the appropriate numbers. The FCC 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.

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 in the ADA and the Architectural Barriers Act (for example a parent pushing a stroller over a curbcut), 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; increased volume control on public pay phones allows us to talk in noisy environments.

The FCC expects many similar results from the rules adopted today. More importantly, we all benefit when people with disabilities become more active in our communities and in society as a whole.

Statistically, most Americans will have a disability, or experience a limitation, at some point in their lives. While 5.3% of persons 15-24 years of age have some kind 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 2050, 35% of our population will be over age 55.

Today, most Americans rely on telecommunications for routine daily activities, for example, to make doctors' appointments, call home when they are late for dinner, participate in conference calls at work, and make an airline reservation. 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

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.

At a time when Americans are experiencing the lowest unemployment rate in years, unemployment among people with severe disabilities is roughly 73%, and when employed they earn only one-third of people without disabilities. The rules the FCC adopted today give employers expanded tools with which to employ and accommodate persons with disabilities.

Action by the Commission July 14, 1999, by Report and Order (FCC 99-181). Chairman Kennard, Commissioners Ness, and Tristani, with Commissioners Furchtgott-Roth and Powell approving in part and dissenting in part and all five issuing separate statements. Commissioner Furchtgott-Roth statement will be issued at a later date.

Common Carrier Bureau contact: Ellen Blackler at (202) 418-0491, TTY 202-418-0485

Report No. WT-22
Docket WT 96-198


July 14, 1999


Summary of the FCC Rules and Policies Implementing Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and Section 251(a)(2) of the Communications Act of 1934


July 14, 1999

Statement of FCC Chairman William E. Kennard

Re: Rules & Policies for Telecommunications Equipment & Services for People with Disabilities

Today's action represents the most significant opportunity for people with disabilities since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. In the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress fashioned the ADA of the Information Age. The framework we announce today is an essential step in making a meaningful difference in the lives of people with disabilities. We build upon the work of the Access Board and follow the ADA's precedent. Now, just as persons with disabilities can navigate our public streets because of the ADA's requirements for curb cuts, all our citizens can navigate the information superhighway without confronting barriers that stop them cold. Simple solutions such as big buttons on phones for the blind, phones with volume control for the deaf, talking caller ID for those who cannot see or move quickly, pagers that send TTY messages and phones with headsets for those who cannot hold the receiver, could be made available. In addition, today, we initiate a Notice of Inquiry that looks to the future. In this dynamic industry, as technology changes with the blink of an eye, we need to ensure that the future is accessible as well.

Our rules today are workable and practical and will allow industry to focus on what's really important: making its products and services accessible. Our rules give service providers and manufacturers a great deal of flexibility in determining how to best deploy their resources to carry out the statutory mandate, as long as they do all that is readily achievable and make modest changes to every product where it is easy to do so. We do not require specific documentation or filings. Indeed, we are mandating ends, not means - and we urge industry to step up and innovate to realize the accessibility goal.

We look forward to moving ahead, building from our common vision of what we must accomplish, and building to an accessible world we all can share.

- FCC -

July 14, 1999

Press Statement
Commissioner Susan Ness

Re: 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

For the nondisabled, it takes little effort to dial a telephone number on a telephone touchpad; scroll through an automatic voice response system to check your bank account balance; leave a simple voicemail message on a colleague's or friend's answering machine; or even to scan a mobile phone's visual display to ascertain who is calling you or whether you dialed the correct telephone number. Unfortunately, in this day and age, the same cannot be said for people who are disabled. Accessing telecommunications equipment or services to perform these seemingly routine tasks that most of us take for granted is a frustrating exercise at best and potentially a life-threatening barrier at worst for people who are disabled.

In this respect, as in others, passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 marks a new beginning. Section 255 requires telecommunications equipment and services to be made accessible to the disability community, and today we adopt implementing rules to fulfill Congress' intent.

These accessibility rules could not have been adopted at a better time. We are in the midst of a revolution that is reshaping not only telecommunications but our economy and society as well. The timing of this ruling is fortuitous because these accessibility rules will apply to the next generation data networks that are on the drawing boards today. If accessibility can be designed in from the "get-go," it will be easier and more cost effective than trying, later in the process, to make compensating or retrofitting adjustments.

Related to the design of the next generation data networks are the individual telecommunications products and services that will communicate with and provide services using those data networks. In concept, our action today adopts the universal design or the so-called "product approach," rather than the "product line" approach, to making telecommunications products and services accessible. The goal is to ensure that as many products as possible will be accessible, if readily achievable.

I have been delighted by the cooperation we have seen between the disability community and the manufacturers and service providers to reach a common understanding. The key insight on which widespread agreement has been achieved is that manufacturers and service providers must consider accessibility concerns in designing all products and services, not just relegate such considerations to a narrow subset of models or services, even if ultimately a particular accessibility feature cannot practically be incorporated in any given product or service. This fundamental change in the mindset of manufacturers and service providers will open product and service design to new and exciting possibilities.

The benefits to the disability community will be substantial. But just as with curb cuts, closed captioning, and volume controls on pay phones, the nondisabled will benefit too. Indeed, in examining one manufacturer's Section 255 offerings during the CTIA convention, I was struck by the utility of a mobile phone with the microphone suspended around the neck. This "hands-free" unit would be ideal for many of us, disabled or not. And now we can reasonably expect that the future will be brightened by many other similar examples, with products and services competing on the basis of their accessibility features.

Moreover, the nondisabled will benefit in other ways as well. Metcalfe teaches that the value of a network is directly related to the number of users. Making telecommunications accessible will facilitate access by the estimated 54 million people who are disabled, thereby increasing the value of the network for everyone -- disabled and nondisabled alike.

I want to thank the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board ("the Access Board"), the disability community, the manufacturers, the service providers, and our own staff for all the hard work that has culminated in this order.

July 14, 1999


Re: Implementation of Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 -- Access to Telecommunications Services, Telecommunications Equipment, and Customer Premises Equipment by Persons with Disabilities, Report and Order and Notice of Inquiry (WT Docket No. 96-198)

I fully support this initiative to implement the mandates of Section 255 of the Communications Act, which was added by Congress as part of the landmark Telecommunication Act of 1996. The 1996 enactment was just the beginning, but this item, in terms of enforcing Section 255, is not just the start. Our action today comes after more than three years of striving toward the accessibility objectives of this important statutory provision by many consumer and industry participants.

I commend those who have participated tirelessly in this effort to reach workable solutions on many of these difficult issues. We are presented today with the fruits of such efforts. Thank you.

Over the past several weeks, I have had the great pleasure of meeting with and hearing from many of the people who are being helped by the inclusion of 255 in the 1996 Act. The many meetings, e-mails and letters have been helpful and informative. I have learned even more about the frustrations that persons with disabilities are still experiencing when trying to place telephone calls. For example, I completely understand the importance of access to voicemail and interactive menus.

People with disabilities can be hampered daily by lack of access to services others take for granted -- leaving a message for a colleague, reaching the desired person at a business, or simply receiving a phone call. As one commenter in the proceeding said so eloquently, "without access to certain enhanced services, such as automated voice response systems and voice mail services, individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing will continue to be barred from enjoying even basic access to the telecommunications network."

This all reminds me about what it was like at one time for me. As I said before when we adopted the notice in this proceeding, I know personally the frustrations of being relegated to the outskirts of "normal" society because of the inability to access the necessary instruments of daily life. Following a serious jeep accident, I recall vividly the feelings of helplessness brought on by the inability to help myself with basic life functions. During my year-long convalescence I found myself preferring the hospital over my home. Home was the real world of difficult stairways to navigate, rather than the ramps of the hospital. It was bathrooms that were a nightmare to get to and use, and it was inhospitable beds and chairs. It was a place where I watched fully functional people move easily in and out of every day, living normal unencumbered lives. But as I reflect and tell some astonished people, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. That experience has guided me in this proceeding in part because it allowed me to experience first hand how much of a jungle the world can be to someone who is disabled.

I have also been very pleased by the input from the telecommunications industry and the manufacturers. Moreover, I have been extremely impressed by the initiative and leadership of several organizations and companies that, in consultation with consumer groups and disabled persons, have already implemented Section 255's requirements. These law-abiding entities (which I would suggest represent a vast majority of our corporate citizens subject to Section 255) will have no fear of our actions today or enforcement actions of tomorrow.

I understand the industry's remaining concerns as much as I understand the concerns of consumers that would want us to go as far as we can in making all communications services and equipment accessible to all. But, despite our legal wrangling here today, we are duty-bound to consider all of these remaining concerns and we are duty-bound to act within the terms delegated to us by the elected members of Congress.

In this vein, I have grave concerns about the draft item's use of "ancillary jurisdiction" to extend the accessibility requirements of Section 255 to providers of voicemail and interactive menu services, as well as to manufacturers of telecommunications equipment and CPE which perform such functions. I think the draft order before us today has chosen to primarily rely on the least sustainable course for covering such services and may have placed much of the good work embodied in this item at unnecessary risk.

I definitely support the result that we are striving for with regard to voice mail and interactive menus. I agree that we should take all reasonable and aggressive steps to ensure that people with disabilities are unimpeded from using telecommunications due to barriers created by voice mail systems and interactive voice menus. The problem has been identified, it is real, and should be remedied as quickly as possible. However, the draft order's primary approach, in my mind takes a grave step. The draft item seems to concede that voice mail and voice menu services are excluded from section 255, yet is comfortable reaching for ancillary jurisdiction to rewrite the provision more to its liking, admittedly for perhaps the worthiest of causes. I am uncomfortable with this assertion of unbridled, plenary authority to legislate coverage, especially where Congress appears to have by the terms of its Act, excluded certain areas from coverage. I am unconvinced that such an unrestrained application of ancillary jurisdiction has been sanctioned by the courts, nor do I believe it to be consistent with our own precedents. Accordingly, while I support 99.99 percent of this item and everything that it achieves, I must dissent from its assertion of ancillary jurisdiction.

I believe there are a number of theories that potentially would have allowed us to provide these services within the terms of the statute and without usurping the legislative prerogatives of Congress. I accept the Chairman's invitation to continue exploring these alternative approaches. I am sorry that we are not able to rely on these other legal theories without resorting to the use of ancillary jurisdiction. I can only hope that the decision to rely, in whole or part, on ancillary jurisdiction does not result in litigation that delays the availability of the relief which is sorely needed.

Separate Statement of Commissioner Gloria Tristani

Report and Order on Implementation of Section 255 and 251(a)(2) Access to Telecommunications Services, Telecommunications Equipment, and Consumer Premises Equipment by Persons with Disabilities

July 14, 1999

I've spoken before about the importance of access in our information society. Telecommunications is increasingly so much more than how we communicate -- it is how we teach, how we learn, how we work. To be denied access to these activities is to be relegated to the sidelines of our national life. And so I have fought hard to ensure access in other contexts -- E-rate and universal service. So, too, here. The opportunity to make decisions like these -- and to see the meaningful effect in individuals' lives -- is what makes this job worthwhile.

Congress, of course, made the first important decision here: the decision to require that all telecommunications services and equipment be accessible to people with disabilities, if readily achievable. But we have the obligation to bring Congress' intent to life, through our implementation and enforcement. Section 255 is a true corollary to the ADA, which mandates accessibility in employment and public accommodations. Knowing that full participation in our national life means more than eliminating physical barriers, Congress did not stop there. Section 255 builds upon the progress of the ADA by removing barriers to communication and information. The rules we adopt today will have a substantial effect on the quality of life for all Americans with disabilities.

I have approached this rulemaking with these goals in mind. The rules we adopt provide manufacturers and service providers with both certainty about their obligations and flexibility in how they meet them. As manufacturers consider accessibility throughout the design and development of new products and services, I have no doubt that the intelligence and innovation of this industry will prevail in amazing, unforeseen ways. As a lawyer, it's one of the things I appreciate about engineers. We lawyers are trained to create problems. Engineers love to solve them. So I have every confidence that industry will create greater accessibility and greater inclusiveness that will benefit us all.

I am particularly pleased about one aspect of our decision. I firmly believe that we have the jurisdiction, and indeed, the obligation under the Communications Act, to include voicemail and interactive voice menus in our rules. These services are more than commonplace. They are often the only means of completing a simple phone call today. When I call a bank or an airline, a theater or a credit card company, interactive voice menus are the means by which I complete my call. Often a live human is available, if at all, only by navigating that system. Those who are hard of hearing, or who have mobility or cognitive disabilities, simply may not be able to respond as quickly as the system demands. A TTY-user, working with a communications assistant, may have to spend forty-five minutes, and endless phone calls, to re-enter the system and repeat the prompts just to check an account balance. When these individuals are disconnected, or do not have sufficient time to respond to a prompt, it is a fiction to say that that phone call is accessible because, in the technical sense, it has been terminated at the number dialed. In no purposeful sense is that call accessible to the person placing it. Voicemail and interactive voice menus are so integral to the use of telecommunications services today that their inaccessibility can render telecommunications services themselves inaccessible. By reading the statute with its purpose in mind and covering these vital services, we ensure real and meaningful access.