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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.