Guidance on the Telecommunications Act Section 255 Guidelines
As technology continues to improve our means of telecommunication, it can pose challenges to accessibility on one hand, while on the other hold the key to innovative access solutions. Section 255 of the Communications Act requires telecommunications products and services to be accessible to people with disabilities. This is required to the extent access is “readily achievable,” meaning easily accomplishable, without much difficulty or expense. If manufacturers cannot make their products accessible then they must design products to be compatible with adaptive equipment used by people with disabilities, where readily achievable. What is readily achievable will be different for each manufacturer based on the costs of making products accessible or compatible and their resources.
Telecommunications products covered include:
- wired and wireless telecommunication devices, such as telephones (including pay phones and cellular phones), pagers, and fax machines
- other products that have a telecommunication service capability, such as computers with modems
- equipment that carriers use to provide services, such as a phone company’s switching equipment.
The possible functions of a product are key in determining coverage. If a product can provide telecommunication services, then that portion is covered. For example, televisions generally are not covered by section 255, except where a set-top-box enables e-mail communication or Internet access, and then only that device is covered.
Section 255’s Likely Effect
Because section 255 applies only to products designed, developed and fabricated after the law took effect on February 8, 1996, and does not require changes to existing products, its overall impact likely will not be immediate. It certainly stands to improve access and the number and range of accessible products. Still, not every new product or service will be accessible to all persons with disabilities. Manufacturers and service providers, however, are finding that as they make products easier to use by people with disabilities, they often make them easier to use by everyone; some access features, such as vibrating alerts on pagers and talking caller ID, have benefits for all users.
What makes telecommunications products accessible?
Manufacturers must ensure that products are “designed, developed, and fabricated to be accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities” when it is readily achievable to do so. The Access Board was given the job of developing guidelines that spell out what makes telecommunications products accessible.
What is the Access Board?
The Access Board is an independent Federal agency that develops and maintains accessibility guidelines and standards. This includes not only the guidelines issued under the Communications Act, but guidelines for the built environment and transit vehicles developed under other laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as standards for electronic and information technology. The Board provides technical assistance and training on its guidelines and standards, but does not have any enforcement authority under the Communications Act.
Telecommunications Act Accessibility Guidelines
The Board’s final guidelines, published in February 1998, were developed with help from an advisory committee the Board created for this purpose. The Telecommunications Access Advisory Committee included product manufacturers, service providers, disability groups, and experts in communication access. The final guidelines were developed closely based upon this committee’s recommendations. The guidelines were published in proposed form and made available for public comment in April 1997.
The guidelines focus on establishing what equipment must be able to do, as opposed to specifying exactly how access is achieved, which will likely vary among different types of products. Structured as performance requirements, the guidelines detail the operating characteristics and product capabilities necessary for access. This approach is used because the products covered are varied and ever changing through technological innovations. The guidelines address products and equipment, including input, output, operating controls and mechanisms, and product information and documentation. Access is covered for people with disabilities affecting hearing, vision, movement, manipulation, speech, and interpretation of information.
The guidelines also provide guidance material on how certain performance requirements can be met. These “strategies” provide examples on the means for achieving access. This information, contained in the appendix to the guidelines, is advisory rather than mandatory.
Input, Control, and Mechanical Functions
The guidelines require that input, control, and mechanical functions be accessible so that they can be used by people with:
- no vision, low vision, or limited color perception
- limited or no hearing
- limited manual dexterity, reach or strength
- limited or no speech ability
- limited cognitive skills
For example, the guidelines require that a product be operable without vision by providing at least one mode that does not require user vision. Another example from the guidelines requires that a product be operable without hearing by providing at least one mode that does not require user auditory perception.
A product must meet each requirement when it is “readily achievable” to do so. Determining what is readily achievable for each product is to be “assessed independently” for each specified type of access. For example, making a product operable without vision is to be explored separately from the ability to make it operable without hearing.
Output, Display, and Control Functions
All information necessary for operating and using products must:
- be available in audible form and, where appropriate, tactile form (for people with no vision)
- be available in a form other than audible that is accessible to people with low vision and little or no hearing
- be available in visual form (for people with no hearing)
- be available in enhanced audible form, such as increased amplification, increased signal-to-noise ratio, or a combination (for people who are hard of hearing)
- allow moving text, where used, to be presented in a static form at the user’s option (for people with limited cognitive skills or vision)
- have minimum visual flicker (to help prevent seizures in persons with photosensitive epilepsy)
- allow audio cutoff where external speakers are used through standard connectors for headphones or personal listening devices
- minimize interference with hearing aids and other hearing technologies
- allow wireless coupling to hearing aids where audio tranducers normally held up to the ear are used
For example, the guidelines require that visual information be provided in at least one audible mode and auditory information in visual form (and, where appropriate, in tactile form). As with the criteria for input, the ability for a product to meet these requirements is to be “assessed independently,” meaning on a requirement-by-requirement basis.
Product Compatibility with Adaptive Equipment
The guidelines also cover compatibility between products and adaptive equipment people with disabilities commonly use for access to telecommunications. This is required where it is not readily achievable to make the product directly accessible to the user. Requirements for compatibility include:
- providing all information for operating products in a standard electronic text format since people with significant or multiple disabilities may not be able to use the built-in displays and control mechanisms of a product
- a connection point on products with auditory output so that people with hearing impairments can plug in devices, such as hearing aids and amplifying headphones, that isolate and enhance the output
- compatibility with prosthetics so that touch screens and touch controls can be operated by head sticks and other prosthetics instead of by body contact
- connections for TTYs on products allowing voice communication and compatibility with TTY signals
Design Planning and Product Information
Manufacturers are required to develop a process for ensuring that access and usability are considered in the earliest design phases for a product. The guidelines also require access to user guides, installation guides, and product support. This includes information on the product in general and on its accessibility features. Access requires provision of information through alternate formats or modes of communication, such as:
- Braille - cassette recordings - large print- electronic text - Internet postings - TTY access- captioning and audio description for video materials
The guidelines provide advisory information on these formats and communication methods, including how they serve people with disabilities and recommendations for good practice.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has sole jurisdiction over enforcement of section 255, and the law does not provide any “private right of action” which means that anyone concerned about access as required under the law can file a complaint with the FCC, but not a suit in court. Regulations issued by the FCC will explain the enforcement process and compliance with the law, including the role of the Board’s guidelines.
Frequently Asked Questions about the Communications Act (Section 255)
- What is covered by Section 255?
- When did section 255 take effect?
- Who is covered by section 255?
- What is a manufacturer?
- What are manufacturers required to do?
- How will the requirements be enforced?
- What does “readily achievable” mean?
- Who decides whether something is readily achievable?
- How will a manufacturer know whether a product is accessible, usable or compatible?
- What do the guidelines address?
1) Q: What is covered by Section 255?
A: Telecommunications equipment and customer premises equipment designed, developed and fabricated after the effective date of the section, including, but not limited to, telephones, pagers, fax machines, computers with modems, etc.
- Telecommunications equipment. Equipment, other than customer premises equipment, used by a carrier to provide telecommunications services, and includes software integral to such equipment (including upgrades).
- Customer premises equipment. Equipment employed on the premises of a person (other than a carrier) to originate, route, or terminate telecommunications.
- Telecommunications. The transmission, between or among points specified by the user, of information of the user’s choosing, without change in the form or content of the information as sent and received.
- Telecommunications service. The offering of telecommunications for a fee directly to the public, or to such classes of users as to be effectively available directly to the public, regardless of the facilities used.
2) Q: When did section 255 take effect?
A: Section 255 took effect February 8, 1996, when the Act was signed.
3) Q: Who is covered by section 255?
A: Manufacturers of telecommunications equipment and customer premises equipment.
4) Q: What is a manufacturer?
A: A manufacturer is the company that sells to the public or to vendors that sell to the public; a final assembler; the company whose name appears on the product.
5) Q: What are manufacturers required to do?
A: Manufacturers must ensure that such equipment is accessible and usable, if it is readily achievable. If accessibility is not readily achievable, the manufacturer must make the equipment compatible with peripheral devices used by people with disabilities, if that is readily achievable.
6) Q: How will the requirements be enforced?
A: Complaints can be filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has sole jurisdiction over enforcement; there is no “private right of action.”
7) Q: What does “readily achievable” mean?
A: Readily achievable has the same meaning as in the ADA: easily accomplishable without much difficulty or expense.
8) Q: Who decides whether something is readily achievable?
A: The manufacturer, based on the cost and its resources.
9) Q: How will a manufacturer know whether a product is accessible, usable or compatible?
A: Section 255(e) required the Access Board to issue guidelines setting forth criteria for accessibility and compatibility. The final guidelines were issued February 3, 1998, and became effective March 5, 1998.
10) Q: What do the guidelines address?
A: The guidelines specify that manufacturers must develop a process for ensuring that accessibility and usability are considered in the earliest product design phases and provide information on how to use the product that is usable by persons with disabilities. A set of functional criteria is provided and an appendix with useful strategies for incorporation of accessibility.