This section contains a brief overview of historical developments affecting telecommunications for individuals with disabilities. It is intended that this section will provide a framework for the development of the TAAC recommendations contained in this report.


In order to understand the recommendations of this report, it is important to first consider some barriers individuals with disabilities have encountered in accessing telecommunications as well as some actions the telecommunications industry has taken to make telecommunications equipment accessible prior to the enactment of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Access to telecommunications has been of great concern to people with disabilities since the invention of the telephone. Initial advocacy efforts came from people who are deaf and hard of hearing. In the mid-1960s, a fundamental barrier -- the lack of a visual alternative to voice communication by people who are deaf -- began to fall with the invention of an acoustic coupler that allowed teletypewriter signals to be sent and received through the telephone network. AT&T and others donated teletypewriters and a volunteer organization of telecommunications workers, the Telephone Pioneers, worked with the deaf community to assist in bringing this technology to those who needed it. This demonstrated how industry and persons with disabilities can work together, given the opportunity.

Since the early 1970s, several telecommunications companies have initiated and supported the development of a number of access technologies. The application of Baudot technology (both TTY hardware and the protocol) to text terminals for deaf, hard of hearing, and speech disabled users, and its dissemination, was a principal focus of their efforts in this area. In addition to general initiatives, some of these companies provided case-by-case custom support for telecommunications functions for people with disabilities, including special assemblies, such as on-hook/off-hook switches that could be controlled by light touch, puff and sip, and electronic environmental controls. These products enabled many persons with disabilities to live more independently. The Telephone Pioneers published and distributed the first compendium of telecommunications accessibility tools known as the "Green Book."

In the late 1970s, consumers began to take their concerns to state utility commissions and legislatures. The state of California took the lead by assessing a line charge to finance the lending of TTYs. This program was later extended to other specialized customer premises equipment used by people who are hard of hearing as well as those with speech disabilities, and those experiencing other problems with telephone access.

In the 1980s, a number of telecommunications companies began efforts to maximize access for persons with disabilities. First, they participated in state equipment distribution programs for people with disabilities. Second, many companies participated in the initial efforts to establish telecommunications relay services (TRS). Finally, several companies initiated research in speech recognition technology that would offer new input and output opportunities for people who had speech, vision, and physical limitations.

The hearing aid compatibility standard grew out of a characteristic of older telephone receivers. These receivers leaked magnetic signals that could be picked up by a small coil in the hearing aid. This eliminated acoustic background noise and thus improved audibility of speech. When manufacturers switched to newer, more efficient receiver designs, the inductive coupling was no longer possible. This spurred a decade-long advocacy effort to achieve hearing aid compatibility in all telephones, and which resulted in the development of the EIA Standard RS-504, first issued in 1982, which established formal criteria defining the magnetic field intensity from a telephone receiver, and the Hearing Aid Compatibility Act of 1988. (The details of the HAC Act are discussed in the legislative history section of this report.)

In general, solutions to telecommunications barriers had focused primarily on adaptations to inaccessible equipment and the provision of specialized customer premises equipment. Lately, some service providers and manufacturers have become aware that solutions to barriers for individuals with disabilities are sometimes of benefit to a wider range of customers as well. For example, the vibrating pager is accessible to deaf persons but it also means the pager won't interrupt an important business meeting. The voice-activated telephone dialer can be used by someone with limited use of her hands as well as a driver who wants to place a call on her cellular phone without taking her eyes off the road. The voice-output Caller ID device is usable by a blind person and, at the same time, allows identification of the caller without having to leave the dinner table to see the device. These and similar designs are examples of the application of universal design principles: that is, incorporating features in the product itself to make it more usable by a wider audience.

By the 1980s, telecommunications and customer premises equipment had become much more diverse. Some of the new technologies improved accessibility and offered new functionality. With the diversity, however, came a new array of access problems. For example, the proliferation of facsimile created a new barrier to people with low vision or blindness. At the same time, ongoing problems with access to the voice network led deaf individuals to advocate for telephone relay service in their states and ultimately nationwide, through Title IV of the ADA.

As the convergence of telephone, computers, and television technologies began to escalate in the late 1980s and early 1990s, individuals with disabilities began to realize both the tremendous potential of technology and the potential for setbacks in accessibility. Of particular concern was the impact of these technologies on employment and participation in the mainstream of technology. For example, the marriage of computers and networks brought the graphical user interface, an inaccessible interface for people who are blind, into the world of telecommunications, extending its importance as a tool in the workplace.

As a result, consumers with different types of disabilities focused on telecommunications advocacy, with the goal of ensuring that telecommunications and customer premises equipment would be as accessible as possible.

Developing accessibility guidelines for the new generation of telecommunications and customer premises equipment poses a series of issues for both the industry and individuals with disabilities. For example, with the rapid pace of technological innovation within the telecommunications industry, individuals with disabilities are concerned that new technologies be accessible so that they can compete in the workplace. Moreover, as technology becomes commonplace in the American lifestyle, individuals with disabilities need to know if they will be able to use such equipment, or if it will be useable with specialized customer premises equipment. Also, how will individuals with disabilities know if a particular piece of equipment meets their needs? These issues are discussed in this report.

The telecommunications industry also has concerns with the implementation of section 255. A key issue for industry is how the criteria of readily achievable can be applied to accessibility of telecommunications equipment. Industry is also concerned with how to develop accessible products without discouraging innovation and thus putting them at a competitive disadvantage within the marketplace. Finally, there is concern about what will happen if industry can make a given product accessible to some, but not all disabilities. These and other issues became the focus of the Telecommunications Access Advisory Committee.


Prior to the 1980's, little had been done by state or federal legislatures to address the needs of individuals with disabilities to utilize telecommunications equipment. Starting in the early 1980's, some states developed programs for the provision of telecommunications relay services and the distribution of specialized customer premises equipment, such as text telephones (TTY's), telebraille machines, and artificial larynxes. Relay services enable persons who are speech or hearing disabled and who use TTY's to communicate by telephone with persons who use conventional voice telephones via a third party called a communications assistant. For the most part, these state relay and distribution programs could not meet the all of the demands for telecommunications services or equipment by individuals with disabilities.

The first important step in the development of a national telecommunications policy for persons with disabilities was the Telecommunications Act of 1982. This law expressly allowed states to require carriers to continue providing subsidies for specialized equipment needed by persons with impaired hearing, speech, vision, or mobility. The 1982 Act also set forth requirements for certain telephones to be compatible with hearing aids. This new law made clear that compatibility between telephones and hearing aids was necessary to accommodate the needs of some persons with hearing loss. In this law, for the first time Congress recognized the FCC's obligation to ensure that individuals with disabilities "have access to the universal telephone network." H. Rep. No. 888 (97th Congress, 2d Session. 1982) 4. The House Report explained:

"Persons with normal hearing may be unable fully to appreciate the pervasiveness of the telephone both in commercial transactions and personal contacts. The inability to use this instrument, except through an interpreter, is not only a practical disability but a constant source of dependency and personal frustration. Conversely, the ability independently to use the telephone may enable persons with other severe handicaps ... to lead self-sufficient lives in regular contact with society. The Committee believes that making the benefits of the technological revolution in telecommunications available to all Americans, including those with disabilities, should be a priority of our national telecommunications policy." (Id. at 4-5).

In 1986, Congress continued to recognize the importance of providing access to information technology when, in Section 508 of the 1986 Amendments to the Rehabilitation Act, Congress directed federal government agencies to limit their purchases to information technology that is accessible or could support accessibility. In 1988, Congress took an additional step in recognition of the crucial role that access to technology plays in the lives of individuals with disabilities, with the Technology Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act. Title I of that Act provides federal funding for grants to states to increase access to assistive technology and accessible information technology.

In 1988, Congress also passed the Hearing Aid Compatibility Act (HAC Act). The HAC Act required that all landline telephones (with the exception of secure telephones) made in or imported into the United States after a certain date (August 1989, with the exception of cordless telephones, which were given an extension until August 1991) must be hearing aid compatible. In 1988, Congress also passed the Telecommunications Access Enhancement Act. This legislation established an expanded federal relay services for calls to, from, and within the federal government, and was designed to improve telecommunications access for persons who use TTYs.

In July of 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. The ADA was the first comprehensive civil rights law to prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government programs, places of public accommodation, transportation, and telecommunications. Title IV of the ADA mandated the establishment of a nationwide telecommunications relay service (TRS) by July 26, 1993. The ADA's requirement for TRS has begun to open the world of telecommunications to individuals with hearing and speech disabilities. Titles I, II, and III have also impacted somewhat on telecommunications access by individuals with disabilities. Although these sections do not impose any requirements for the development of accessible telecommunications products and services, they do require employers, state and local governments, and places of public accommodation, respectively, to provide auxiliary aids and services, which may include accessible telecommunications products and services, to achieve effective communication by individuals with disabilities. Finally, the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG), promulgated by the Access Board, require certain telephones covered by the ADA to be physically accessible, hearing aid compatible, and have volume control. These guidelines also require TTYs to be provided at certain public pay phone locations. Notwithstanding these various mandates for telecommunications access under the ADA, nothing in the ADA requires the manufacture of telecommunications products that are accessible. Among other things, section 255 of the Communications Act (as amended) is intended to fill this gap.

In October of 1990, Congress went on to enact the Television Decoder Circuitry Act. This law now requires television sets with screens 13 inches or larger, manufactured or imported into the United States, to be equipped with a computer chip which decodes closed captioning on television programs. Decoder equipped televisions enable persons who are deaf or hard of hearing to receive caption output with regular television programming where captioning is otherwise incorporated into the programming. A new Section 713 of the Communications Act, added by the 1996 Act, further expands such television access by applying new requirements for captioning on new and previously published video programming.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 follows this long history of legislative efforts to improve telecommunications access for individuals with disabilities. In addition to mandating access to telecommunications equipment and customer premises equipment, section 255 of this Act mandates access to telecommunications services. The FCC is charged with enforcing section 255, and is expected to initiate further proceedings.


In order to meet its responsibilities under section 255(e) of the Telecommunications Act, the Access Board chartered the Telecommunications Access Advisory Committee, under the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The purpose of this Advisory Committee was to bring together members of the telecommunications industry, manufacturers of telecommunications equipment and customer premises equipment, and persons with disabilities to provide the Access Board with recommendations on what the accessibility guidelines should address.

On March 28, 1996, the Access Board published a notice of intent to establish an advisory committee to make recommendations to the Access Board on accessibility guidelines for telecommunications equipment and customer premises equipment. (See Appendix D) The notice requested nominations for membership on the Committee from manufacturers of telecommunications equipment and customer premises equipment; manufacturers and developers of peripheral devices or specialized customer premises equipment commonly used by individuals with disabilities to achieve access; organizations representing the access needs of individuals with disabilities affecting hearing, vision, movement, manipulation, speech, and interpretation of information; telecommunications providers and carriers; developers of telecommunications software; and other persons affected by the accessibility guidelines.

Over 60 nominations were submitted. From this group, the Board selected 33 organizations. (See Appendix D) Of this original group, three organizations did not send a representative and one organization withdrew midway through the process. Once established, the Committee accepted the applications of four additional members to achieve better representation of the interests in this proceeding.