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Disabilities - Frequently Asked Questions

What is Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS)?

Telecommunications Relay Services, or TRS, enables telephone conversations between people with and without hearing or speech disabilities. TRS relies on communications assistants (CAs) to relay the content of calls between users of text telephones (TTYs) and users of traditional handsets (voice users). For example, a TTY user may telephone a voice user by calling a TRS provider (or "relay center"), where a CA will place the call to the voice user and relay the conversation by transcribing spoken content for the TTY user and reading text aloud for the voice user.

TRS is required by Title IV of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and, to the extent possible, must be "functionally equivalent" to standard telephone services. Interstate and intrastate relay services are available in all 50 states and the District of Columbia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

How do I access TRS?

Simply dial your local TRS provider, either through TTY or voice telephone, and your call will be answered by a communications assistant (CA). Provide the CA with the number of the party you wish to contact, and the CA will complete the call and "relay" the conversation, verbatim and in real time.

The TRS provider number is listed in the local telephone directory, usually in the information section, or may be obtained from directory assistance. (Some states have separate TRS provider numbers for TTY and voice callers.) The FCC also publishes a TRS Directory.

How are TRS services funded?

The cost of interstate TRS is recovered from all providers of interstate telecommunications services, as a percentage of their gross revenues and a "contribution factor" determined annually by the FCC. Contributions are administered in a TRS Fund by the National Exchange Carrier Association (NECA), an association of local telephone companies. TRS providers are compensated for interstate TRS minutes of use based on a "payment rate" also determined annually by the FCC.

The FCC has also established an interstate TRS Fund Advisory Council that is comprised of consumer representatives, TRS users, state regulatory officials, TRS providers, and state relay administrators in order to advise the TRS Fund Administrator on funding issues. The Advisory Council's meetings are open to the public.

What is Universal Design?

"Universal design" is the concept of achieving accessibility of structures, products, and services by planning for the fullest range of human function at the blueprint stage. The dual goals of universal design are (1) accessibility to the widest range of individuals and (2) elimination of the need for retrofitting and reconstruction.

Some examples of universally-designed telecommunications products include televisions with closed-captioning decoder circuitry, telephones with volume control and built-in hearing aid compatibility, and public telephones which are lowered to heights accessible to people who use wheelchairs and which also feature built-in TTY keyboards.

What is Closed-Captioning?

Closed-captioning is the display of audio portions of television and video programming as printed words on the television screen. In addition to displaying spoken dialogue and music lyrics, captions may identify speakers, sound effects, background music, and laughter. "Open" captions always appear directly on the television screen; "closed" captions are hidden as encoded data within the television signal and are displayed only when activated by the viewer. Since 1992, all televisions with screens 13"or larger are required to be equipped with the technology to display captioning, and consumers may purchase set-top decoders for older TV models.

What is Video Description?

Video description is an auditory depiction of a television or video program's visual elements for persons who are blind or visually impaired. Video description is inserted in the natural pauses of a program's dialogue, and may be used to describe visual elements such as body language, settings, and actions. In order to receive video description, an audience member must have a stereo television or VCR that is capable of receiving the Second Audio Program (SAP) "channel." The SAP feature is available on most new TVs and VCRs, and consumers may also purchase receivers for converting TV sets to stereo with SAP.

What are volume control telephones?

Volume control telephones allow the user to amplify the sound output level of the telephone receiver. In addition to benefitting persons with hearing loss and persons losing their residual hearing later in life, volume control can also benefit persons who must use telephones in noisy environments.

What are the major provisions in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 with regard to disability access?

Two provisions of the Telecommunications Act focus entirely on access by persons with disabilities: Sections 255 and 713.

Section 255 of the Act requires all manufacturers of telecommunications equipment and providers of telecommunications services to ensure that such equipment and services are designed and developed to be accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, if readily achievable. The FCC will undertake a rulemaking proceeding to implement this provision.

Section 713 aims to ensure that video services are accessible to individuals who are hearing impaired and/or visually impaired. It requires the FCC to study the level at which video programming is closed-captioned, and then to establish a timetable for closed captioning requirements. (The FCC is authorized to exempt programming for which the provision of closed captioning would be economically burdensome.) Section 713 also directs the FCC to study the use of video description in order to assure the accessibility of this service to persons with visual impairments.

Other provisions of the Act aim to promote access to telecommunications by all Americans, including those with disabilities.

Section 706 requires the FCC to encourage deployment of advanced telecommunications to all Americans, and to elementary and secondary schools and classrooms in particular. It requires the FCC to assess the level at which advanced telecommunications are available, and then to take steps, if necessary, to accelerate deployment of such services by removing barriers to infrastructure investment. This provision could significantly benefit children with disabilities as well as children without disabilities and adults.

Section 254 concerns universal service, and directs the FCC and a Federal-State Joint Board to define what services should be made universally available and to take other actions as needed to further the Act's universal service principles. Section 254 also revises the definition of universal service to include schools, libraries, and health care facilities. It says that telecommunications companies must provide services to these public institutions at affordable rates, upon request. The FCC and the States must decide what constitutes affordable rates, what telecommunications services should be covered, and how discounts should be made available to public institutions.

Section 256 directs the FCC to establish procedures for oversight of telecommunications network planning and states that the FCC may participate with the industry in developing standards for "interconnectivity" (the ability of telecommunications carriers to connect to each other's networks). Such standards would promote access to telecommunications networks by people with disabilities.

Section 251 states that telecommunications carriers may not install network features, functions, or capabilities which do not comply with the guidelines and standards established under Sections 255 and 256.

What are Assistive Listening Devices?

Assistive listening devices (ALDs), also known as auditory assistance devices (AADs), are forms of telecommunications equipment designed to enhance the ability of people with hearing disabilities to hear in various settings, including theaters, classrooms, lecture halls and meeting rooms.

How can I participate in the FCC rulemaking process?

In order to participate in an FCC rulemaking proceeding, first read the relevant Notice of Inquiry (NOI) or Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to identify the issues that the FCC is seeking comment on and the deadlines for submitting such comments. (FCC rulemaking documents are posted on the FCC web site along with additional information on how to file comments.) Then send your comments to the Office of the Secretary, Federal Communications Commission, Washington, D.C., 20554. Please include on your comments the Docket Number of the proceeding, which may be found at the top of any NOI or NPRM.

How can I obtain information on disabilities issues from CGB?

Consumers who want to be kept abreast of disability issues can register on the FCC Consumer Information Registry. A subscription to this registry will keep you up to date with the latest information. If you work for an organization representing individuals with disabilities or for a telecommunications service provider, CGB would like to send you information on a regular basis so that you can share this material with your members.

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