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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.