Title IV of the ADA requires the provision of telecommunication relay services (TRS) to enable people with hearing or speech disabilities to use the nation’s telecommunication system. There are a number of types of relay services available, using a variety of methods and technologies to facilitate conversations between parties.

Individuals with disabilities use a “TTY” (originally from “teletypewriter”). A TTY is a device with a keyboard and visual display and/or print-out that connects to a telephone line; two individuals who each have such a device can type and read their conversation back and forth. To facilitate this type of relay service between an individual who has a TTY and an individual who doesn’t, a Communications Assistant (CA) uses a TTY and connects to the individual with a disability on one telephone line, and simultaneously uses standard voice equipment to connect to the other party on another line. The CA reads aloud to the other party what the TTY user types, and then types back the spoken response.

Captioned Telephone Service, or CTS, is often used by individuals who are hard of hearing and use captions to supplement residual hearing. The individual speaks directly to the other party, and speech recognition software (with or without support from a communication assistant) transcribes the other party’s response into captions the individual can read on a screen.

This type of relay service facilitates calls for individuals with speech disabilities. No special equipment is needed; a CA who is trained in understanding people with speech disabilities merely listens to what they say and then repeats it to the other party.

This type allows an individual with a disability to carry on his conversation in American Sign Language (ASL). The CA is still connected simultaneously to both conversational parties, but in this case the connection between the individual with a disability and the CA is via the Internet, and they both use video equipment to see each other and sign back and forth. The connection between the CA and the other party can be via standard telephone equipment on a standard telephone line. The CA, who is fluent in ASL, voices to the other party what the individual with a disability signs, and then signs back the other party’s spoken responses.

Although VRS is not specifically required by the ADA, it has become increasingly popular with both individuals with disabilities and those with whom they communicate via telephone. Using sign language instead of typing often results in a more smoothly flowing conversation between the parties.

There are some other types of relay services, and a number of specific standards related to the availability, quality, timeliness, and confidentiality of the service. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) establishes standards and handles complaints related to TRS.

There are a number of other laws and rules which address access to telecommunications and other technologies. Many of the rules and standards are focused on access for people with disabilities related to vision, hearing, and/or speech, but there are requirements designed to address barriers encountered by people with other types of disabilities as well (e.g. reaching and operating controls on an information transaction machine or a copier can present difficulties for some individuals who use wheelchairs or have limited strength or dexterity).

Section 255 of the Communications Act

Section 255 of the Communications Act requires telecommunications service providers and equipment manufacturers, to the extent it is readily achievable, to make their services and products accessible to people with disabilities, and/or make them compatible with assistive devices commonly used by people with disabilities. The rules address a broad range of equipment (e.g. telephones, fax machines, answering machines, pagers) and services (e.g. telephone calls, call waiting, speed dialing, call forwarding, caller identification, call tracing, interactive voice response (IVR) systems, voice mail).

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act establishes requirements to improve the accessibility of electronic and information technologies developed, maintained, procured, or used by the federal government. The rules and standards address an array of technologies used by federal employees and/or members of the public, including telecommunications products and systems, computers, software applications, video and multi-media products, information kiosks, copiers, and Internet sites.

The U.S. Access Board develops guidelines for products under Section 255 as well as standards for technologies covered by Section 508.

Additionally, a number of requirements related to both the manufacture of televisions and the production and broadcast of video programming are designed to increase the availability of closed captioning for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA)

This law, enacted in 2010, expands the scope of requirements related to closed captioning, ensures greater access to Internet-based communications and video programming, improves accountability and enforcement under Section 255, enhances support for telecommunications relay services, and requires greater accessibility of programming navigational guides, menus, and user-interface features.

The law also reinstates the FCC’s video description rules which were struck down by a federal court in 2002. Video descriptions, designed to benefit individuals who are blind or have low vision, are spoken phrases or narratives describing key visual elements such as actions, gestures, or scenery. Descriptions are inserted into natural pauses in the existing audio portion of a program, thereby creating an alternative audio track that individuals may select. The new rules will eventually result in more programming becoming available with this option.