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What the Telecommunications Industry Needs to Know about the ADA

people on mobile phones for ADA telecommunications

Telecommunications refers to any type of communication over a distance using electronics. Decades ago, that may have meant telephones or telegrams. Today, however, it’s so much more. We communicate by text, email, social media and video calls, and these technologies are embedded in our day-to-day activities.

From early days, telecommunications have been regulated through legislation. In fact, the first Communications Act was passed in 1934! Regulation is important for everyone because it ensures that telecommunications services and products are secure, fair and non-discriminatory.

The largest minority group protected by telecommunications legislation is people with disabilities – who, of course, have a right to equal access to technologies and products, just like everyone else.

There are many federal laws governing the telecommunications industry, or at least governing the use or procurement of telecommunications products and services, that mention the obligation to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities. A full range is listed in “Use of Telecommunications Products by People with Disabilities,” a paper by the DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center at the University of Washington1.

Laws include the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act CVAA, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Telecommunications Accessibility Enhancement Act and the Assistive Technology Act. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the federal agency response for enforcing and implementing communications law and regulations in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.

Some of these laws apply only to specific sectors, such as product manufacturers, or certain activities, such as procurement by federally funded agencies. There is one law, however, that applies very broadly: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.

What Does the ADA Say about Telecommunications?

The aim of the ADA is to ensure that people with disabilities are not discriminated against, and that they have the same opportunity to participate in society as everyone else. Several components of the law set out requirements to prevent discrimination in the use of telecommunications products and services:

  • Title IV of the ADA added Section 255, “Access by Persons with Disabilities,” to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (this was a rewrite of the outdated Communications Act). Under this section, telecommunications service providers and manufacturers of equipment must ensure that their products and services can be used by people with disabilities. If accessibility is not “readily achievable,” then they must ensure that the products or services are compatible with assistive devices commonly used by people with disabilities, such as screen readers.
  • Title IV made it a requirement for telephone companies to provide relay services for those customers who have hearing disabilities and don’t communicate by voice.
  • In addition, Title IV specifically required closed captioning to be added to any public service announcements that are broadcast on TV and receive federal government funding or production support.
  • Both public agencies (e.g. state and local government departments) and private organizations (e.g. stores and banks) – these are known in the ADA as Title II and Title III entities – are required to “communicate effectively” with people whose disabilities affect their ability to communicate. This means ensuring that people with disabilities can communicate just as effectively as people who don’t have disabilities. Often, accessible telecommunications services and products are required for this effective communication. For instance, people who are blind may be given information by email instead of on printed paper. People who are deaf may be accommodated by adding captions to an educational video.
  • The ADA is for Everyone

    If you’re not sure if any of the above sections apply to you, then know this: Under the ADA, both Title II and Title III entities are prohibited from any kind of discrimination on the basis of disability. This applies regardless of whether you’re in the telecommunications industry or provide telecommunications products or services. It means that public and private organizations must, by law, ensure that there are never any barriers preventing the participation of people with disabilities.

    Good News for the Telecommunications Industry

    The good news about complying with the ADA is that when you improve the accessibility of your products and services, you improve the usability for everyone.

    The closed captioning we mentioned earlier is a good example. As part of the web content accessibility guidelines, adding closed captioning to videos has much wider applicability than sharing the audio information with people who are deaf. Noisy sports bars with big-screen TVs, for instance, will often use the captions feature. Video captions are also important when the people speaking have strong accents, or are using unfamiliar slang or technical terms.

    When videos are linked to captions or transcripts, it can also provide them with search capability, and can make them more likely to come up in online search engine results. In addition, closed captioning makes a video more understandable for someone who isn’t fluent in English. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are more than 25 million people in the U.S. who don’t speak English very well.

    Think that sounds like a lot of people? The number of people who have disabilities is actually more than twice this size. Thus when you comply with the ADA and ensure that your telecommunications products and services are accessible to people with disabilities, you’re doing your own organization a favour. You’re expanding your reach to include a large target market, and your profit margin along with it.

    An Innovative Solution

    eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY has developed a comprehensive accessibility solution to help organizations follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and achieve and maintain compliance with standards and regulations. This includes integrating web compliance evaluation and remediation services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.

    References

    1. Use of Telecommunications Products by People with Disabilities DO-IT, 2012

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