Act of 1996 (Section 255)
The Telecommunications Act of 1996,
a comprehensive law overhauling regulation of the telecommunications
industry, recognizes the importance of access to telecommunications
for people with disabilities in the Information Age. Section 255
of the Act requires telecommunications products and services to
be accessible to people with disabilities. This is required to the
extent access is "readily achievable," meaning easily
accomplishable, without much difficulty or expense. If manufacturers
cannot make their products accessible then they must design products
to be compatible with adaptive equipment used by people with disabilities,
where readily achievable. What is "readily achievable"
will be different for each manufacturer based on the costs of making
products accessible or compatible and their resources.
Guidelines and Enforcement
Manufacturers must ensure that products
are "designed, developed, and fabricated to be accessible to
and usable by individuals with disabilities" when it is readily
achievable to do so. The Access Board was given the job of developing
guidelines that spell out what makes telecommunications products
accessible. The Board’s final guidelines, published in February
1998, were developed with help from an advisory committee the Board
created for this purpose. The Telecommunications Access Advisory
Committee included product manufacturers, service providers, disability
groups, and experts in communication access. The final guidelines
are based on this committee’s recommendations. The Federal
Communications Commission is responsible for rules and policies
to enforce the law.
Telecommunications products covered
1) wired and wireless telecommunication
devices, such as telephones (including pay phones and cellular phones),
pagers, and fax machines
2) other products that have a telecommunication service capability,
such as computers with modems
3) equipment that carriers use to provide services, such as a phone
company’s switching equipment.
The possible functions of a product are key in determining coverage.
If a product can provide telecommunication services, then that portion
is covered. For example, televisions generally are not covered by
section 255, except where a set-top-box enables e-mail communication
or Internet access, and then only that device is covered.
Section 255's Likely Effect
Because section 255 applies only
to products designed, developed and fabricated after the law took
effect on February 8, 1996, and does not require changes to existing
products, its overall impact likely will not be immediate. It certainly
stands to improve access and the number and range of accessible
products. Still, not every new product or service will be accessible
to all persons with disabilities. Manufacturers and service providers,
however, are finding that as they make products easier to use by
people with disabilities, they often make them easier to use by
everyone; some access features, such as vibrating alerts on pagers
and talking caller ID, have benefits for all users.
Act of 1996
47 U.S.C. §§ 153, 255
§ 153. Definitions
For the purposes of this chapter, unless
the context otherwise requires–
. . .
(14) Customer premises equipment
The term "customer premises equipment" means equipment
employed on the premises of a person (other than a carrier) to originate,
route, or terminate telecommunications.
. . .
The term "telecommunications" means the transmission,
between or among points specified by the user, of information of
the user's choosing, without change in the form or content of the
information as sent and received.
. . .
equipment The term "telecommunications equipment"
means equipment, other than customer premises equipment, used by
a carrier to provide telecommunications services, and includes software
integral to such equipment (including upgrades).
service The term "telecommunications service"
means the offering of telecommunications for a fee directly to the
public, or to such classes of users as to be effectively available
directly to the public, regardless of the facilities used.
. . .
§ 255. Access by persons
As used in this section–
The term "disability" has the meaning
given to it by section 12102(2)(a) of Title 42.
(2) Readily achievable
The term "readily achievable" has
the meaning given to it by section 12181(9) of Title 42.
A manufacturer of telecommunications equipment or customer premises
equipment shall ensure that the equipment is designed, developed,
and fabricated to be accessible to and usable by individuals with
disabilities, if readily achievable.
services A provider of telecommunications service shall ensure that
the service is accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities,
if readily achievable.
Whenever the requirements of subsections (b) and (c) of this section
are not readily achievable, such a manufacturer or provider shall
ensure that the equipment or service is compatible with existing
peripheral devices or specialized customer premises equipment commonly
used by individuals with disabilities to achieve access, if readily
Within 18 months after February 8, 1996, the Architectural and Transportation
Barriers Compliance Board shall develop guidelines for accessibility
of telecommunications equipment and customer premises equipment
in conjunction with the Commission. The Board shall review and update
the guidelines periodically.
(f) No additional private
rights authorized Nothing in this section shall be construed
to authorize any private right of action to enforce any requirement
of this section or any regulation thereunder. The Commission shall
have exclusive jurisdiction with respect to any complaint under