One of the many things we take for granted in life is the ability to make a simple phone call. For tens of millions of individuals who were deaf, hard of hearing, deafblind, or had a speech disability thirty years ago, that was not always the case. This all changed with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) enacted on July 26, 1990.
Title IV of the ADA directed the Federal Communications Commission to ensure that Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS) are available to individuals with hearing and speech disabilities in the United States. This new civil right shattered many previously insurmountable obstacles to employment, health care, emergency communications, and much more. As a result, individuals with disabilities are now able to place calls to others directly, independently, and effectively.
It was a critical step in fulfilling the promise to make “rapid, efficient nationwide communication service” available to all individuals. As communication technologies have evolved, TRS has expanded to enhance access to “functionally equivalent” telecommunications services under the ADA.
On the 30th anniversary of this landmark legislation, we pause to reflect on the evolution of TRS.
Telecommunications Relay Services Milestones: 1990-2020
July 26, 1990: ADA is signed into law.
July 26, 1991: The FCC adopts landmark rules requiring phone companies to provide TRS and meet mandatory minimum standards to ensure TRS is functionally equivalent to voice communications services.
July 26, 1993: Text-based TRS via Text Telephone Relay (TTY) is made available on a uniform, nationwide basis throughout the United States.
February 8, 1996: The Telecommunications Act of 1996 is signed into law, with provisions supplementing Title IV of the ADA to enhance the accessibility and usability of telecommunications equipment and services for people with disabilities.
February 19, 1997: The Commission establishes 711 as the dialing code for TRS, allowing users to dial a universal number within the United States to initiate a TRS call.
March 6, 2000: The Commission expands TRS to include Video Relay Service (VRS), allowing communications assistants to facilitate calls in American Sign Language (ASL) using internet-based video conferencing, along with Speech to Speech (STS) relay services to facilitate calls for persons with speech disabilities and non-English language relay services.
April 22, 2002: The Commission expands TRS to include IP Relay, an Internet-based form of text relay, enabling consumers to access TRS with personal computers via internet connections.
August 1, 2003: The Commission expands TRS to include Captioned Telephone Service (CTS), allowing individuals with residual hearing to enjoy natural voice telephone conversations supplemented by captions.
May 9, 2006: The Commission requires interoperability among all VRS providers and consumers.
December 20, 2006: Internet Protocol (IP) Captioned Telephone Service (IP CTS) is added as a form of TRS, introducing technical improvements over CTS, including the capability to direct dial calls.
May 31, 2007: TRS access is extended to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, requiring VoIP providers to offer 711 dialing.
March 19, 2008: The Commission adopts emergency call handling requirements for VRS, IP Relay, and IP CTS voice services, a significant step forward in the path towards functionally equivalent access to emergency services.
June 24, 2008 and December 19, 2008: The Commission issues internet-based TRS Numbering Orders for VRS and IP Relay, adopting a uniform numbering system linked to the North American Numbering Plan, making it possible for VRS and IP Relay users to be reached in the same way as hearing telephone users. The Commission also requires that emergency calls placed by VRS and IP Relay users be automatically routed to appropriate emergency services authorities.
October 8, 2010: The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) is signed into law, significantly increasing accessibility to evolving communications technologies for people with disabilities.
May 9, 2011: The National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program (NDBEDP, or iCanConnect) pilot program is created to provide free equipment, including smartphones, tablets, computers, screen readers, braille displays, and more to low-income individuals who are deafblind. In August 2016, the program becomes permanent.
June 10, 2013: The Commission adopts rules to improve the structure, efficiency, and quality of the VRS program.
December 16, 2016: The Commission amends its rules to facilitate the transition from TTY to real-time text (RTT), a technologically superior accessibility solution that allows text to be sent as it is created through wireless phones on networks that support RTT.
March 23, 2017: The Commission establishes a pilot program to allow VRS communications assistants to handle calls from home and VRS providers to issue ten-digit VRS numbers to hearing individuals who know ASL, which enables them to have direct video communications with people who have hearing and speech disabilities.
June 8, 2018: The Commission authorizes use of fully automatic speech recognition (ASR) to produce captions for IP CTS calls without the use of communications assistants.
May 15, 2019: The Commission adopts rules for direct video calling, establishing procedures for qualifying customer-support call centers to access the TRS Numbering Directory, and enabling consumers to communicate directly using sign language.
January 31, 2020: Based on the success of the pilot program, the Commission adopts rules allowing “at-home” VRS call handling.
May 5, 2020: The Commission conditionally certifies the first provider of fully automatic IP CTS, using only ASR technology, with test results showing significantly better captioning speed and accuracy than other IP CTS providers.
June 4, 2020: The Commission conditionally certifies a second fully automatic IP CTS provider, with test results showing faster captioning and equal or better overall accuracy than IP CTS providers relying on communications assistants.
Beginning March 2020: In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Commission issues a series of waiver orders to ensure relay services remain available. These temporary waivers allow TRS providers flexibility to address reduced staffing and increased call volumes by enabling more of their employees to provide services from their homes. The waivers also allow registered VRS users who are out of the country to make calls to the United States during the national emergency.
The Commission will continue to refine its rules and activities to ensure that the spirit of the ADA is embodied in the delivery and availability of modern communications. To learn more, please visit the Disability Rights Office at www.fcc.gov/accessibility.