Expanding Access to Communications Technology for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Communities

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By Shannon Ramsay, CFILC’s  Information & Assistance Advocate

We increasingly communicate using advanced devices that zip data back and forth between us over the Internet. Since many of these new types of communication technology have not been designed to be accessible for those of us with hearing impairments, it has become necessary to update and expand existing telecommunications laws to address these accessibility barriers. The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) was passed to ensure that this next generation of Internet-based and digital communication technologies is accessible to those of us with hearing and speech disabilities. In this article I will review the changes which the CVAA is making to hearing aid compatibility requirements as well as the expansion of the relay service. 
Until now section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 only required newly manufactured and imported phones using the traditional public switchboard network to be compatible with hearing aids. Section 255 did not make any provisions for manufacturers of new Internet-enabled phone technology to incorporate hearing aid compatibility into their products. Click here to find out more about past hearing aid compatibility requirements under section 255.

In Title I, section 102, the CVAA extends the current regulations for hearing aid compatibility to include all equipment and devices which offer Internet protocol-enabled (IP) communication services. IP-enabled devices, such as Internet phones, tablets, and PDAs, transmit your voice through the Internet using technologies such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) instead of the traditional switchboard system. Today many people and organizations use Internet phones to communicate more cheaply and easily, but there is no guarantee that you will be able to hear and understand the person calling you using an Internet phone if you wear hearing aids. The CVAA mandates that the manufacturers of new IP-enabled telecommunications devices must incorporate hearing aid compatibility into new products by including things such as acoustic handsets in their designs. Regulations spelling out the requirements for hearing compatibility of IP-enabled telecommunications devices will be issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the fourth quarter of this year. I am personally looking forward to a time when I can use an Internet phone and know that I will not experience any interferences with my hearing aids. 

Right now telecommunications relay services (TRS) are only intended to facilitate functionally equivalent communication between people with hearing and speech disabilities and all other people. Section 103 of the CVAA updates the scope of relay services to require equivalent telephone communication functionality between parties regardless of disability and to increase relay service obligations for all VoIP service providers.     

Have you experienced any difficulties using Internet-enabled communications technology as a person with a hearing impairment?                                                             

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