Assistive Technology on the Threshold of the New Millennium, Association for the Advancement of Assistive Technology in Europe, Proceedings of the Fifth Annual Conference,
Dusseldorf, Germany, November, 1999.
President’s Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities,USA
from civil rights law has been used creatively to act as a driver or agent of
change upon companies that manufacture and produce goods and services. The
result is that goods and services produced by these companies can be used by
people with disabilities. It is about using, or influencing, law and
regulation to create a new force in the marketplace. Unemployed people with
disabilities are likely to greatly benefit from this impetus.
in the workplace can occur through legislative mandates on the private sector,
or supply side, for the purpose of addressing the needs of people with
disabilities. It is a different
way of making change happen and is an example of a macro or systems change
approach. Mandates that require
goods and services to be manufactured for disability access exist now in two
major federal laws in the United States and impact two business sectors,
telecommunications and information technology.
These are recent and important developments that expand opportunity for
people with disabilities and permit business to consider new markets.
overarching effect of these statutory requirements for disability access is to
advance the concept of universal design into the telecommunications and
electronic and information technology industries. These legal requirements are
causing companies in the private sector to change the way they design, develop
and fabricate products and services. Companies
must now develop products to be accessible to, and usable and operable by,
people with disabilities. Products are everyday items used in the workplace,
home or school or workplace or other setting.
critical result of imposing these requirements is addressing the workplace
need for accessibility in telecommunications and information
technology. The approach
therefore can help reduce significant high levels of unemployment found among
people with disabilities.
Requiring Disability Access in
Telecommunications and Information Technology
255 in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, is one such universal design
Telecommunications Act is the underlying statute or law for all electronic
communications in the U.S. Originally
enacted in 1934, the law underwent a major overhaul due to market-based
pressures in the industry and was amended in 1996 and signed by President
William Clinton in February,1996. This
law affects all mobile, satellite communications, television (broadcast, cable
and satellite), radio and wireline and wireless telephony, in America.
The Communications Act is enforced by the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC), an independent federal agency in Washington, D.C.
Section 255 provision affects an industry making billions of dollars annually
in telecommunications products and services a year, products and services that
are used in the workplace and in homes and other settings.
Section 255 was a new provision added to the Communications Act, and
represents the first time that an entire industry is required to design,
develop and fabricate equipment and services that take into account the needs
of people with disabilities.
Since the law is now in effect, companies are required to comply with
FCC rules for Section 255, to be published by the end of 1999, and individuals
with disabilities are beginning to enjoy the fruits of the mandate.
second example of a universal design requirement is found in Section 508 of
the Rehabilitation Act of 1998, as amended, signed by President William
Clinton in August, 1998. The
Rehabilitation Act is a statute that undergirds the rehabilitation system in
the U.S. The federal rehabilitation program delivers about $2 billion in
services annually, executed via a statewide system of service delivery
targeted to people with disabilities. This
program is administered in Washington, D.C. by the Rehabilitation Services
Administration (RSA), which oversees and directs the state level agencies to
deliver vocational rehabilitation services.
Within this Rehabilitation Act is the Section 508 provision. This
provision, originating in 1986, was upgraded in 1998 during reauthorization of
the rehabilitation law, to ensure better implementation and greater
508 requires that electronic and information technology purchased by the
federal government must be accessible to people with disabilities, commencing
for all purchases after August 7, 2000. Since
federal government agencies purchase millions of dollars of information
technology each year, the section 508 standards will have a great spill-over
or ripple effect in the private sector.
is anticipated that both these universal design requirements, since they
impact manufacture of goods and services, will cause barriers to employment to
fall in both the public and private sectors, for people with disabilities.
In the U.S., people with disabilities experience one of the highest
level of unemployment of any group, both due to a number of historical
conditions and because workplace
access to technology has not been addressed directly.
with Disabilities: Unemployment Statistics
unemployment statistics for people with disabilities in the U.S. follow.
Figures are for working-age Americans with disabilities (ages 21 to
64). These figures are the most
up-to-date data from the U.S. Census Bureau, released in 1996 and tracks the
years between 1991-1994. The next U.S. Census (2000) hopefully will show a
less gloomy picture.
Highest Among Minorities With Disabilities
to the U.S. Census Bureau's 1994-95 data, 72.2% of African Americans with
disabilities and 51.9% of Hispanics with disabilities are not working.
For those with severe disabilities the situation is worse: 85.5% of African Americans and 75.4% of Hispanics with severe
disabilities are not working.
figures are upsetting as the U.S. economy approaches full employment -- about
4.3 percent unemployment overall -- with economic growth and stability
expected to be sustained for years. The
U.S. Department of Labor asserts that the labor supply continues to shrink
with growth slowing to a crawl and creating the tightest labor market in forty
years. Since 1996, the number of people on the job or
available for hire has increased at only 1.1 percent last year, a pace that
should continue through 2006, and slower than the precious 10 years which
increased at only 1.3 percent.
technology accessible in the workplace is one way to address the problem of
unemployment for people with disabilities.
Universal design is a process that facilitates this as it makes
products and services easy to use, enriching products and services for other
groups, such as the elderly, foreigners, and those unaccustomed to utilizing
design means designing things in the beginning stages to take into account
the largest possible range of users, and which includes people with a
variety of disabilities. It is a
process or approach rather than a certain specific outcome.
is as opposed to designing for average people, or standard people, or what
used to be called ‘normal’ people and then expecting people with
disabilities to fit or adapt themselves to the equipment or environment in
some way. The end result of a non-universal design approach may cost a lot to the individual with
a disability, or cause a ‘special cost’ to society, and may involve
expensive and inconvenient retrofitting of an item or system.
mandate for universal design -- such as found within Section 255 and Section
508 -- means, in the practical sense, that certain industries will have to
change how they approach designing their goods and services.
In the example of section 255 of the Telecommunications Act,
telecommunications companies (equipment manufacturers and services providers)
are targeted. In the example of section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act,
information technology and telecommunications companies that sell to the
federal government are targeted.
MANDATE IN SECTION 255, TELECOMMUNICATIONS ACT
mandate greatly affects the telecommunications industry.
It means that as they make and develop telecommunications goods and
services, designers and developers and manufacturers have to think about the
needs of and usage by people with disabilities. This means taking into account
the needs of people with vision, hearing, speech or other disability or
functional limitation. Designers must now think through if someone can wheel
up to a device (such as an electronic information kiosk or phone appliance),
how they will see or hear it (if it is a wireline or wireless telephone set)
if they have a vision or hearing disability or limitation, or how they will
manipulate the controls or the content that the device accesses, and how a
person might understand how to use it (if they have a mental disability) or
how to speak to it (if they have a speech or hearing disability). If a device
doesn’t work for a person who can’t hear or see, for instance, then it is
not accessible. And it probably
is not too user-friendly for elderly persons either. Or those of us who get
impatient fast with buttons and controls and menus!
Includes Service Providers
255 also pertains to service providers.
means whatever services they sell must be also usable
by a person with a disability. Services
here means basic telephone services,
which are defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the
regulating agency, as dial tone, touch tone, voice telephony.
Such services here also mean adjunct-to-basic
services, defined by the FCC as “services that are basic in purpose,
that facilitate completion of
calls through basic telephone service facilities,
without altering the fundamental character of telephone service, and
which bring maximum benefit to
the public through incorporation into the network.” Examples include:
directory assistance, electronic directory assistance, speed dialing,
call forwarding, computer-provided directory assistance, call monitoring,
caller identification, call tracing, call blocking, call return, repeat
dialing, call tracking, Operator Services for the Deaf (OSD), some Centrex
(centralized operator) features.
many instance, some of these are features that can be found in the device
itself or which can be purchased as a service within the network.
Speed dialing is one example found on phone sets but which can also be
invoked while making a phone call to directory assistance.
there is another group of services, defined by the FCC, called enhanced
services, which are not yet covered by the Sec. 255 mandate. Some of these types of services include: voice mail,
electronic mail, facsimile store and forward, interactive voice response,
protocol processing gateway, audiotext information services, electronic
store and forward, data processing, gateways to online databases, alarm
monitoring, reverse directory services, and other information services. These
are the services provided typically by Information Services Providers (ISPs)
such as America On Line, Compuserve and thousands of other Internet-using
providers. Information services are not currently regulated in the U.S. although such
services often pass through the public network
(copper and fiber lines).
community of people with disabilities, and their advocates, would like
information services providers to address disability access as such services
are now almost ubiquitous and it is often necessary to access information
services to perform job functions. ‘Searching the web’ or ‘surfing the net’ for
various nuggets of information used to conduct one’s tasks in the workplace
is often not possible for people who are blind.
Many web browsers can’t read aloud or navigate the information on web
pages, particularly those with extensive graphics and windows. Information
services are becoming part of what is sold and bundled in different ways, by
different providers as technology converges.
There often appears -- to end users with disabilities -- to be artificial regulatory walls between ‘enhanced
services’ and other services that use telephone lines that was created in
previous regulations and which have not been addressed appropriately in the
new amended communications law. As telephone service providers use new lines (wirelines,
wireless, broadband) the end user with a disability doesn’t know the
technological or regulatory barriers – he or she just wants it to work for
with Assistive Technology
Sec. 255 mandate says also that if companies cannot make equipment and
services accessible and operable, that is, if it is not readily achievable to
make products, equipment and services accessible to people with disabilities,
then the company must make it work, or be compatible, with the equipment, or
assistive technology, that people with disabilities use.
means equipment used by people with disabilities such as TTYs, electronic
voice prosthetics, artificial limbs, other medically necessary aids, although
this list is not limited to these items.
255 Rooted in Disability Civil Rights Law
text of Section 255 opens with
key definitions found in the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), signed by
President George Bush in 1990. These
include the definition of disability and the term ‘readily achievable’ as
found in the ADA.
definitions used here are found in the basic civil rights law that protects
people with disabilities in the United States, the Americans with Disabilities
Act or the ADA, enacted in 1990. The
same ‘definition of disability’ is used and the same concept of ‘readily
achievable’ are used in a creative way. They were imported from the civil
rights law into a law which affects numerous private sector entities.
Not only does this provide consistency but it is a creative way to
export concepts in civil rights law. The ADA established the U.S. as the world
leader in defining civil rights for people with disabilities.
Using language from the fundamental civil rights law for people with
disabilities in other laws, such as the Telecommunications Act, is a
transformative act that seeks to remove the barrier between people with
disabilities and those without disabilities.
life activities are walking, talking, breathing, seeing, talking, working,
etc. and are determined as ADA cases develop.
In determining ‘readily achievable’ under the Sec. 255 mandate, it
is the general feeling of the
disability community that a good deal of accessibility can be easily
accomplished and without much expense, if technically feasible.
Telecommunications companies, both service providers and makers of equipment,
are huge corporations, valued in the billions of dollars.
Disability advocates have noted that new products and services are
often ‘engineering driven’, that is, a new technology may lead to market
development rather than vice versa. While
markets may demand certain types of services, it is often the marketing
departments of telecommunications companies who are central to determining
whether a particular technology will reach the market.
Involved in Developing the Rules
has been significant industry involvement in developing the rules under this
mandate. Also, many people with
disabilities, and their representatives, were involved.
The mandate required the U.S. Access Board to develop recommendations
for guidelines to standards under Sec. 255.
The U.S. Access Board formed a Telecommunications Access Advisory
Committee (referred to as “the TAAC”). Through a public notification
process members of disability organizations and telecommunications companies
were invited to a ‘talks’ process. The
TAAC met two or three days a month for about 10 months holding intensive
discussions on the rulemaking. During
this process private sector individuals had the opportunity of learning a lot
more about disability, about ‘the disability point of view’ and about the
social conditions of people with disabilities and their families.
Conversely, individuals with disabilities learned a lot more about the
industry, its concerns and thoughts about disability. Many of the usual stereotypes about people with disabilities
were punctured during the TAAC rulemaking process, which resulted in
guidelines for standards.
even greater importance, critical relationships were built between industry,
academic and disability community leaders and advocates.
Often it is these relationships, built through regulatory development
via person-to-person contacts, that has lead to real change occurring. For
example, during the TAAC process, one engineer with a
regulatory and standards-making background, after meeting people with
significant sensory disabilities, made
a personal commitment to returning to his home office to ensure that
‘something would be done’ about disability accessibility at his company. Over an 18 month period he has been able to form a disability
interest team that is made up of people from different departments and
divisions within his company. This
team is ‘carrying the word’ about disability to different parts of the
company and is, in effect, injecting a new consciousness about disability
within that particular corporate culture. Other companies are creating
disability access centers and disability web sites, disability engineering
teams and similar process-oriented activities in response to the Section 255
rule. Products include training
films to show to new employees, design engineering manuals, and training for
staff at customer call centers.
a similar vein, some industry trade associations and standards-making bodies
have formed disability standards development committees, or are developing
training manuals, or otherwise developing “disability sensitivity” in response
to the mandate. It is often one
‘champion’ who starts this process, who decides disability accessibility
is important and who works on introducing the topic on the agenda within
whatever organizations and entities they are involved with.
These are the allies and new heroes for the disability community!
SECTION 508 MANDATE
508 is a few paragraphs found in another larger law, the Workforce Investment
Act of 1998, a major piece of legislation signed by President Clinton August
1998. Essentially it says that all U.S. federal government agencies that buy
information technology must ensure that what they purchase can work for an
employee with a disability or for a customer of the agency with a disability.
includes items such as desk top computers, information kiosks, copy or Xerox
machines on networks, any equipment that is automatic and part of an
electronically operated system. The law has a wide-ranging effect as both
federal employees and their customers are covered.
again, as in the Sec. 255, there is a fall-back provision. If the agency
purchasing information technology finds this to be an undue burden, they have
to find another way to provide access for the employee or customer.
burden has a similar meaning to ‘readily achievable’, although it is
considered a higher standard. Other
stipulations in these few paragraphs that affect the hundreds of information
technology vendors selling the U.S. federal government address standards
development and what is defined as information technology. Section 508 uses a
definition of electronic and information technology that is found in another
piece of legislation, the Clinger‑Cohen Act of 1996, and which exempts
certain national defense-related technology.
rulemaking process by the U.S. Access Board clarified the scope of equipment
and services covered. Similar to the rulemaking process for telecommunications
access, the U.S. Access Board brought together key persons from the private
sector and disability community to develop recommendations for the rule.
They formed an “Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory
Committee” (the EITAAC) to develop the rule, which consisted of private
sector individuals, people from disability organizations, federal agency
participants and other experts. As in the TAAC process, key persons with
disabilities were involved or were “at the table” during these
discussions. This again expedited
the learning process about disability for the private sector representatives
of companies that sell to the federal government. This type of process permits
a lot of learning about
disability and at the same time permits a realistic final rule to be
Component in Development of These Mandates
importantly, people with disabilities in hearing, vision, speech, cognition
and mobility were involved every step along the way.
For instance, a coalition of disability services and advocacy
organizations was formed in Washington, D.C. to work on the impending changes
in the telecommunications law. This coalition included, as a majority, people
with significant sensory and motor disabilities. In as many instances as
possible, people with disabilities acted as spokespersons, negotiators,
lobbyists and in other roles during the ongoing process of ‘educating’.
There were hundreds of conversatons with the industry persons, appropriate
Congressional legislators and federal regulators what the needs for disability
access in telecommunications were about. In the Section508 example, federal agency staff and some
disability advocates built on previous language, borrowed concepts from
Sectoin 255, and slowly added the provisions during the reauthorization
process for the Rehabilitation Act.
Rooted in Human Rights
key success factors were use of good definitions and language borrowed from
the Americans With Disabilities Act, the fundamental civil rights law that
protects people with disabilities. The
basic concept of civil rights -- when applied to the marketplace –
is that a person with a disability has the same right to the use and
the benefit of goods and services as do people without disabilities. This is
based on the understanding that:
disability is a natural part of
the human condition
anyone at any time in any place
can become a person with a disability
society as a whole shares
responsibility for disability
it is wrong to put barriers in
the way of people with disabilities.
Gains When Disability Access Is Built In
is a fundamentally egalitarian approach that is deep-rooted in Western
civilization. Its manifestation introduces new forces into the market place:
for companies who are now ‘forced’ or ‘compelled’ to make their
products and services disability accessible, there is a steep learning curve.
They have to re-think how they look at
‘the market for people with disabilities’.
They can no longer can carve up the market into
“the blind” or “the deaf” or “the wheelchair bound” or
“the dumb” or “the retarded”. There can be no more minimizing.
Private sector marketing personnel now must realize that a person with
hearing disability lives in a household that purchases products that every one
else uses. They have to reflect
on the reality that a person who is blind might now be in a workplace.
This means understanding that people with disabiliteis are part of the
whole and that equipment and services manufactured and sold must work for both
person (s) with and persons
without disabilities. They
have to start making products and services that work for everyone and that can
be found “on the shelf’.
will always likely be a need for some very specialized and custom-made
technology for people with some very severe and multiple disabilities, but
this new approach, the approach called universal design, starts with the
everyday and asks that off-the-shelf products and services are designed and
developed at the outset to be used by people with disabilities.
requiring federal government purchases to be disability accessible a
supply side market force is created.
It allows engineers and other problem solvers to find new ways to
innovate and generate new products. Workplaces
will be highly impacted as more and more products and services become
available as they are designed with disability access in mind from the
will discover that it is easier to hire a person with a disability in the
workplace as they will find computers, telephones, fax machines, copiers and
other equipment already in the market place, that works for the person in a
wheelchair, or who has a vision disability or who has hearing loss or other
disability. Designing for
disability provides access for any one, at any time, any where, or any place.
This concept meets a fundamental market driver of the private sector,
which is to be able to sell a product or service that can be accessed
electronically at any place, at any time by any one. It also means companies can sell a lot more!
overall effect of these two civil rights based mandates has been to introduce
new concepts into the market place, that is, “to think outside of the box”
for many companies. A universal
design approach or policy creates impact as it:
is a process that changes how
products and services are made;
removes the burden of adapting
to the world from the individual with a disability;
spreads responsibility across
takes down barriers between
people as everyone benefits as products and services are designed for people
with disabilities. The approach makes things usually more ‘user friendly’
for those without disabilities and additionally, as a person who is now
not-disabled becomes disabled, or loses functional capacities (such as in
hearing, vision, speech, cognition, and
mobility) as they age, they will not lose the ability to use every- day and
commonly found products and services.
the needs of people with disabilities into what is made for everyone else can
enrich us all.
Jenifer Simpson is an Employment Advisor and Technology Policy Analyst with the President’s Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities, a small federal agency with a mission to enhance employment of people with disabilities. She was the founder and convener of the Consortium for Citizens With Disabilities Task Force on Communications Access and is the parent of a 14 year old boy severely disabled by cerebral palsy. President’s Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities, Washington, D.C., USA. Tel: (202) 376-6200 Ext. 37. Fax (202) 376-6868. Web site at <http://www.pcepd.gov. Email Jenifer Simpson JSIMPSON@fcc.gov
Note that there are other provisions in the Communications Act that address needs of persons with disabilities such as Section 225 which mandates a nationwide system of telephone relay services for those with hearing and speech disabilities (users of text telephones and electronic augmentative communication devices). Language in other provisions, Sections 251 and 256, also address disability access in network infrastructure planning and interconnection. Section 713 requires closed captioning in video programming for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, and it initiates video description for persons who are blind.
Italics indicate exact legal language found in the law.
In May 1999, the World Wide Web Consortium, an industry-sponsored consortium housed at MIT, Cambridge, MA, USA released "Web Content Accessibility Guidelines", to provide design guidelines for equivalent alternatives for auditory and visual information. Guidelines are at <http://www.w3.org/TR/1999/WAI‑WEBCONTENT‑19990505/.
This significant reference document to designing accessible telecommunications can be found at web site <http://www.access-board.gov>.
Copyright © 1998