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The Telecommunications Act of 1996 and People With Disabilities

What does it mean for people with disabilities?

On February 8, 1996, the first major overhaul of American telecommunications policy in nearly 62 years, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, was signed into law.

One of the goals of this historic legislation is to promote the availability of telecommunications services and equipment to people traditionally underserved in telecommunications, including people with disabilities.

Read on for an informal overview of the provisions in the new law that most concern disability access, what the FCC has done to implement these provisions, and how you can get involved.

DISABILITY ACCESS PROVISIONS:

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

I. Access by Persons with Disabilities: Section 255

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 has conducted a rulemaking proceeding to implement this provision and the final Report & Order, released September 29, 1999 is on the website at www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Common_Carrier/Orders/1999/fcc99181.txt and is available in other formats on the Section 255 main page at www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/section-255-disability-rights-office. The final Report & Order includes the Regulations in Appendix B.

II. Video Programming Accessibility: Section 713

Section 713 aims to ensure that video services are accessible to individuals with hearing and speech disabilities. 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.) A Fact Sheet, Frequently Asked Questions and the Final Rule are on the website www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/closed-captioning-video-programming-television

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. The final rule to implement this provision is found on the website at www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/video-description-information.

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

III. Advanced Telecommunications Incentives: Section 706

Section 706 requires the FCC to encourage the 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 a nd adults. For updates and reports on Section 706 visit FCC website www.fcc.gov/broadband/

IV. Universal Service: Section 254

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.

V. Coordination for Interconnectivity: Section 256

Section 256(b)(2)(B) 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.

VI. Interconnection: Section 251

Section 251(a)(2) 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.

HOW THE FCC DEVELOPS REGULATIONS:

The FCC develops regulations through the "notice and comment" process, which allows the public to participate in rulemaking. The FCC usually begins a proceeding to implement a section of a law by issuing one of two types of public documents -- a Notice of Inquiry or a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The public is encouraged to read these documents and address the issues they raise. These documents list deadlines for filing comments and/or reply comments (reply comments give parties an opportunity to respond to the comments filed by others). Comments and reply comments form the "record" of the proceeding, and are considered by the Commissioners and their staffs when they make final decisions.

HOW YOU CAN PARTICIPATE:

You may want to begin by reading those sections of the Telecommunications Act that pertain to disability access, as cited above. The text of the Act is at www.fcc.gov/telecom.html. When a proceeding that you would like to participate in is underway, it is suggested you read the relevant Notice of Inquiry or Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. These documents will be available on the FCC web site, or you may phone 1-888-225-5322 (voice) or 1-888-835-5322 (TTY) for more information on how to obtain them.

The Notice of Inquiry or Notice of Proposed Rulemaking will have instructions on how to submit a comment or reply comment, and how many copies to submit. (You can submit a reply comment even if you did not submit a comment.) You may wish to first familiarize yourself with our hints on filing comments.

HOW TO STAY INFORMED ON THESE ISSUES:

To get the most recent information on the FCC's implementation of the disability access provisions of the Telecommunications Act, use one or more of these methods:

(1) Regularly check the Disabilities Issues Home Page. Also, be sure to check the rest of the FCC Home Page regularly, for developments in all Bureaus and Offices of the Commission.

(2) To receive free Consumer and/or Disability-related information e-mailed directly to you, register today!

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