July 26, 2017 - 10:00 am
By Patrick Webre | Acting Chief, Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau

On July 26, 1990 – 27 years ago today – the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became the law of the land. This landmark legislation gave the FCC a mandate to ensure access to telecommunications by Americans with hearing and speech disabilities.

Title IV of the ADA requires the FCC to ensure that nationwide telecommunications relay services are available for people who are deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind, or who have a speech disability to communicate with other individuals in a manner that is functionally equivalent to people who use voice telephone services.

Generally, relay services use operators, called "communication assistants," who relay — in real-time — conversations between people who use text or sign language and the other parties to the call. For example, when a person who is deaf and uses sign language makes a relay call (using a videophone and a broadband connection), the communication assistant interprets back and forth what that person signs and the person on the other end of the phone call says.

Since 1990, an expanding variety of relay services has been developed, including services that allow individuals to type, use sign language, or even use various combinations of voice, text and signing. There is also a type of relay service that enables people with speech disabilities to use specially trained communication assistants to clarify what they are saying to other parties over the phone.

In 2010, with passage of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), Congress authorized the distribution of free communications equipment to low-income individuals who are deaf-blind. The FCC used this authority to develop the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program, also known as "iCanConnect."

Since 2012, iCanConnect has provided the equipment needed to make communications services accessible to low-income individuals who have both significant vision loss and significant hearing loss. Among other things, this program has enabled people who are deaf-blind and were unable to access telecommunications relay services to now do so.

Although iCanConnect started as a pilot FCC program, it became permanent as of July 1, 2017.

The equipment distributed through iCanConnect has provided life-altering benefits to thousands of eligible individuals who are deaf-blind by helping them stay connected with family, friends, and the world.

A simple story can illustrate the profound impact of the ADA and CVAA. Lisa is a mother of four from New Jersey. She was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a teenager and gradually lost most of her sight. Lisa still has some vision, and uses a cane to get around. She began wearing hearing aids in both ears three years ago as a result of hearing loss after she acquired Usher syndrome, a condition that affects both hearing and vision.

When Lisa heard about iCanConnect, she applied for and received equipment through the program. At first, she was skeptical about her ability to master the new technology. She received training, also provided through iCanConnect, on how to use her new equipment. Now, she texts her children and husband all the time, keeps up with e-mail on her phone, and uses social media to keep in touch with family and friends across the country.

Lisa says that the equipment and training she received through iCanConnect have changed her life: "It's night and day. Before iCanConnect, I had a constant reminder that I had this disability and I couldn't function as most sighted people could. Now, I might use these tools a bit differently than most others, but I can do almost everything thanks to the equipment and training I received through iCanConnect."

The FCC certifies one entity to distribute equipment and provided related services under the iCanConnect program for each state, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. To find the program that serves your state or territory, visit www.iCanConnect.org.

Through iCanConnect, relay service programs, and other accessibility initiatives under the ADA and CVAA, the FCC is working to ensure that all Americans have equal access to essential telecommunications services so that everyone can take full advantage of all the latest life-enhancing innovations. And stay tuned, as there is much more to come.