Telecommunications Act Accessibility Guidelines:  Background

What are the Telecommunications Act Accessibility Guidelines?

The Board developed these guidelines under Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act, which requires access to telecommunications products and services. This is required to the extent access is "readily achievable," meaning easily accomplishable, without much difficulty or expense. The Board is responsible for developing and maintaining guidelines under the Act and providing technical assistance and training on them.

How were the guidelines developed?

As a first step, the Board established an advisory committee to make recommendations on what the guidelines should require. The Telecommunications Access Advisory Committee included product manufacturers, service providers, disability groups, and experts in communication access. In April 1997, the Board proposed guidelines for public comment that were closely based upon this committee’s recommendations. These guidelines were published in final form in February 1998.

Who enforces the guidelines?

The Board developed the guidelines for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is responsible for enforcing the Telecommunications Act. The FCC has issued regulations under section 255 that contain requirements based on the Board’s guidelines. These regulations explain the enforcement process and compliance with the law. (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).

What do the guidelines cover?

Telecommunications products covered include:

The possible functions of a product are key in determining coverage. If a product can provide telecommunications 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.

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.

Performance Criteria

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.

Advisory "Strategies"

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:

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. Strategies for access by people without vision can include enhanced tactile features, ranging from something as simple as a nib on the "5" key of standard numeric pads, to distinct shapes for keys and buttons that can be located and identified by touch.

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:

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. Strategies for making product output accessible to people with little or no hearing include visual or tactile signals to indicate a call, page, or other message.

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:

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:

The guidelines provide advisory information on these formats and communication methods, including how they serve people with disabilities and recommendations for good practice.