The Telecommunications Act of 1996 (Section 255)

The Telecommunications Act of 1996, a comprehensive law overhauling regulation of the telecommunications industry, recognizes the importance of access to telecommunications for people with disabilities in the Information Age. Section 255 of the 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.

Guidelines and Enforcement

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. 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 are based on this committee’s recommendations. The Federal Communications Commission is responsible for rules and policies to enforce the law.

What’s Covered

Telecommunications products covered include:

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Telecommunications Act of 1996
47 U.S.C. §§ 153, 255

§ 153. Definitions

For the purposes of this chapter, unless the context otherwise requires–
. . .

(14) Customer premises equipment The term "customer premises equipment" means equipment employed on the premises of a person (other than a carrier) to originate, route, or terminate telecommunications.
. . .

(43) Telecommunications The term "telecommunications" means 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.
. . .

(45) Telecommunications equipment The term "telecommunications equipment" means equipment, other than customer premises equipment, used by a carrier to provide telecommunications services, and includes software integral to such equipment (including upgrades).

(46) Telecommunications service The term "telecommunications service" means 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.
. . .

§ 255. Access by persons with disabilities

(a) Definitions As used in this section–

(1) Disability

The term "disability" has the meaning given to it by section 12102(2)(a) of Title 42.

(2) Readily achievable

The term "readily achievable" has the meaning given to it by section 12181(9) of Title 42.

(b) Manufacturing A manufacturer of telecommunications equipment or customer premises equipment shall ensure that the equipment is designed, developed, and fabricated to be accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, if readily achievable.

(c) Telecommunications services A provider of telecommunications service shall ensure that the service is accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, if readily achievable.

(d) Compatibility Whenever the requirements of subsections (b) and (c) of this section are not readily achievable, such a manufacturer or provider shall ensure that the equipment or service is compatible with existing peripheral devices or specialized customer premises equipment commonly used by individuals with disabilities to achieve access, if readily achievable.

(e) Guidelines Within 18 months after February 8, 1996, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board shall develop guidelines for accessibility of telecommunications equipment and customer premises equipment in conjunction with the Commission. The Board shall review and update the guidelines periodically.

(f) No additional private rights authorized Nothing in this section shall be construed to authorize any private right of action to enforce any requirement of this section or any regulation thereunder. The Commission shall have exclusive jurisdiction with respect to any complaint under this section.