What access challenges do people with disabilities face when using a telephone?

Date Updated

As telephones become increasingly portable and increasingly integrated with other computing devices and networks, their role in education is beginning to evolve beyond their use in staff offices. Many educational entities in both K-12 and postsecondary environments are exploring ways to integrate wireless telephones into the classroom, providing students access to resources beyond those found there.

The telephone, however, is one of the earliest examples of information technology that excluded individuals with disabilities. People with hearing impairments were excluded from this audible medium from the outset. Text alternatives became possible in the mid-1960s with the invention of the acoustic coupler and began to appear shortly thereafter as teletypewriters (TTYs). A basic TTY consists of a keyboard, a display screen, and a modem, which operates over standard telephone lines. If a deaf individual is communicating with another TTY user, both users communicate by sending and receiving text with their TTYs. If the deaf individual is communicating with someone who doesn't have a TTY, they will use the national Telecommunication Relay Service (TRS), in which relay operators provide two-way translation between spoken word and typed text. A more recent option is the Video Relay Service (VRS), in which relay operators provide two-way translation between spoken word and American Sign Language. For more information on relay services, consult the AccessIT Knowledge Base article What are relay services, and how do I access them?

People with hearing impairments are not the only group who has historically experienced problems with telephones. People with speech impairments, mobility impairments, and visual impairments continue to have difficulty with mainstream telephone equipment today.

People with speech impairments, if unable to communicate verbally, could use TTYs. However, these same individuals face additional barriers if they have physical disabilities that prevent them from using the TTY effectively. Many of these individuals can benefit from the Speech-To-Speech Relay System, a system in which communications assistants (trained speech and language recognition specialists) are provided for people with speech disabilities and others who speak unclear English. The Speech-To-Speech Relay System was available in all fifty states as of March 2001. More information is available at STSNews.com. Also, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) maintains a list of United States Speech-To-Speech access numbers.

People with mobility impairments may be unable to use the controls on the telephone. Several devices have been developed to assist people who have mobility impairments in using the telephone. They include automatic memory dialers, dialing aids, large add-on push buttons, large-number overlays, raised face plates, touch tone transmitters, and other devices.

People with blindness or low vision may have difficulty locating appropriate controls on telephone devices. These same individuals may be excluded if devices provide information via a visual display. Several devices have been developed to assist people who are blind in using the telephone. They include Braille TTYs, telephones with Braille markings, voice-activated telephones, voice output telephones, and voice output caller ID, among other devices.

The Access Board is an excellent source for more information on this topic. The final report of their Telecommunications Access Advisory Committee (TAAC) was published in January 1997 in accordance with Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. TAAC's final report, Access to Telecommunications Equipment and Customer Premises Equipment by Individuals with Disabilities, provides, in addition to the Section 255 guidelines, an extensive history of telecommunications access, including technological and legislative history.

Also, the FCC has created a Consumer Facts Sheet with information about Telecommunication Relay Services, including those for people with speech impairments (described above), and a variety of other relay services available for people with disabilities affecting hearing and/or speech.