July 14, 1999
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The telecommunications industry must make pagers,
cellular phones and other equipment and services easier for disabled people
to use under new rules approved today by federal regulators. The rules
do not spell out specific standards. Instead, they require manufacturers
to do all they can in designing products and services to address the needs
of the disabled. The cost of implementing such features would be kept down
by incorporating them early in the production process, said William E.
Kennard, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
"Oftentimes, all it takes is just writing a different code in the software, or incorporating a small change in the design phase of a product early on," he said. "Our rules grant a fair amount of flexibility to manufacturers."
Equipment such as voice-activated phones, talking Caller ID and phones with keypads that have large buttons or small identifying bumps on the "5" key would be more commonplace under the new rules. Also more widely available would be "text telephones," usually referred to as TTY or TDD systems, and phones with volume controls or lower placement for people in wheelchairs.
The rules stem from a provision of a 1996 telecommunications law that instructed the FCC to take steps to give disabled people better access to telecommunications services and devices.
Kennard said the FCC's action Wednesday "represents the most significant opportunity for people with disabilities since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990."
It also should provide benefits to another group: aging baby boomers. Gregg Vanderheiden, an industrial engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said consumers shouldn't view future technological features as those only intended to help the disabled. "As we age, we find that disabilities and functional limitations increase," he said. "When we're young, not many of us probably have disabilities but as we get older we're finding that they increase more and more."
The percentage of people affected by functional limitations - such as weakened hearing, eyesight and mobility -- increase with age. FCC officials said that 45 percent of people ages 65 to 69 are slowed by such disabilities, which affects 55 percent of those 70 to 74. For people 75 and older, about 72 percent are affected.
Kennard said the new rules are not intended to micromanage the design process of telecommunications products.
"This is about making sure there is a meaningful good-faith dialogue between all the stakeholders here, the industry, the disability community and those of us here at the FCC," he said.
The FCC will enforce the rules through fines or damage awards from the thousands to the millions of dollars. Kennard, however, said he believes manufacturers won't have a problem meeting the rules because of the flexibility being granted to them.
He pointed out that many products commonly used today -- such as the vibrating pager or closed-caption television sets -- were designed for people with disabilities, who account for roughly 54 million Americans and a high number of the nation's unemployed.
David Bolnick, program manager for Microsoft Corp.'s Accessibility and Disabilities Group, said some of the changes can be as simple as slapping a piece of velcro on a cell phone so that a person in a wheelchair with limited hand mobility. Other features are already built into the technology.
"We just had to expose it," he said. The whole premise behind the rules,
he added: "It's the attitude."