Ensuring access to phone service guaranteed under the ADA

VRS allows people like me, who use sign language, to communicate through interpreters with people who use ordinary telephones.  I use it every day to make telephone calls from my home, my office and my tablet computer.  In the years before VRS, I had to depend on others to make calls for me. Captioned Telephone Service allows hard-of-hearing people to understand what is being said on the phone.  Both services allow deaf and hard-of-hearing people to speak with our children or grandchildren, make dinner reservations, rent a car or question the accuracy of a bill, but they are most important in emergencies.  Misunderstanding while making a 911 call in an emergency could lead to tragedy. Both of these services are funded by contributions from telephone companies that amount to less than one percent of a typical telephone bill.

Recently the FCC has been throwing up roadblocks that interfere with the use of these services that are mandated by the ADA.  It appears that the FCC is over-reacting to past cases of fraud.  In one case, a small VRS provider created “artificial” minutes by paying people to make long calls in which there was very little communication.  In other cases, overseas fraudsters used a third service, IP Relay, to communicate without being traced since they used an Internet connection to initiate their calls. 

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These problems have been fixed.  Yet the FCC, stung by criticism for failing to prevent such problems, apparently sees the potential for abuse everywhere today.  In the case of IP Relay, it recently cut the compensation rate for the service so drastically that all but two companies have ceased providing this service and one of the two remaining providers is reportedly considering leaving the business as well.  The FCC recently adopted a proposal that will have the same effect on VRS, cutting the compensation rate such that the quality of services provided will surely suffer and necessary research and development activities will slow or cease.

While cutting rates will drastically affect consumer choice and service, it’s the FCC’s latest actions with regard to Captioned Telephone Service that are real head-scratchers.   First, it requires users to push a special button to activate the captions instead of having the captions come on automatically.  (Captioned Telephone Service providers are prohibited from providing phones in a “captions on” default setting.)  Not only will this make it likely that a hard-of-hearing person will miss the beginning of a call, when people identify themselves and say why they are calling, but the potential for tragedy when making an emergency call is also very possible.  Hearing people simply pick up their phones and use them.  People who are hard-of-hearing must take extra steps that interfere with the quality of their communication. 

Second, the FCC has proposed that hard-of-hearing customers pay at least $75 for a captioned telephone.  Anyone who won’t pay this fee doesn’t need the service according to the FCC even if they provide an audiogram or doctor certification of need.  Because the predominantly elderly users of Captioned Telephone Service must pay all the fees associated with ordinary telephone service and also subscribe to broadband Internet service, requiring them to pay for a captioned telephone as well is not the functionally equivalent service promised by the ADA. 

As a new chairman prepares to take over leadership of the FCC, I hope that he will take a close look at what is happening with regard to telecommunication services for deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans. 

The FCC is absolutely right to ensure that these programs are not subject to fraud, but the answer is not to erect economic and technological barriers for us users or to run the companies that provide these transformational, essential and access providing services out of business.   Rather, the FCC should be striving to ensure that functionally equivalent communication services are available and easy to use for all who need them.  They should be vigilant in their oversight to prevent fraud but they should be even more concerned that these services thrive into the future and establish policies to assure that they do.

Jordan was the president of Gallaudet University from 1988-2006.