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Speech and Hearing Consumer Groups Challenge New FCC Regulations

When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, it improved the quality of life for individuals with disabilities in the workplace as well as in public venues.  The ADA protects hearing-impaired individuals by ensuring they have proper access to qualified interpreters in critical communication situations.

Now, speech  and hearing consumer groups are challenging new FCC regulations in court, saying they violate the rights of people with hearing loss. The FCC regulations in question require users of Internet Protocol Captioned Telephone Service (IP CTS) to pay a $75 fee for telephones, software and applications and require the telephone's captioning feature to remain off until the consumer turns it on.
The Commission believes the regulations will prohibit improper use of TRS  funding, which covers the cost of providing communication services to individuals with speech and hearing disabilities. Although speech and hearing consumer groups agree with the FCC's desire to protect TRS funding from fraud, they believe the new regulations go too far.

phone for individuals with hearing lossTelecommunications Relay Services (TRS) is a telephone service that allows individuals with hearing or speech disabilities to place and receive local and long distance telephone calls. TRS is accomplished with the help of communications assistants (CA) who relay the content of the calls between users. TRS is required by Title IV of the ADA and is available in all 50 states, the District of Columbia,  Puerto Rico and the U.S. territories.

On October 2, 2013, CaptionCall, a provider of captioned telephone services, filed a Stay Request and a Motion to Vacate in the Washington D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing the new FCC legislation violates rights guaranteed in the Americans with Disabilities Act. On December 6, 2013, their Stay Request was granted, waiving the fee for individuals who provide professional certification of their hearing loss.

On January 14, 2014, seven speech and hearing consumer groups filed a Friend of the Court Brief, supporting CaptionCall's petition to the court. They contend this fee prohibits access to the technology for low-income, hearing-impaired people. The stay would redefine low-income at 400% of the federal poverty guidelines in order to match the definition of low-income under the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program (NDBEDP).

The groups contend no one should have to pay a fee in order to access their civil rights. In their brief, they argue the $75 fee poses an "unnecessary burden on low-income consumers with hearing loss." They also argue the fee is unreasonable in comparison to the market value of telephone equipment for individuals with normal hearing.

The court is expected to rule on the issue sometime this summer.

IP CTS is one of the newest forms of TRS and uses the internet to provide the link and captions between the hearing-impaired individual and the CA. This enables the user to both listen to and read captioned conversation simultaneously on existing voice telephones with the aid of a computer or other web-enabled device.

Individuals with speech or hearing disabilities can access TRS services by voice or text telephones (TTY) by dialing the TRS number for their state. TRS access numbers are usually toll-free. Access numbers are typically listed in the information section of the telephone directory. A complete listing can also be found online in the FCC's Telecommunications Relay Services Directory.

There are several forms of TRS in addition to IP CTS. Text-to-voice TTY-based TRS is the most traditional. In it, the CA receives typed text from the hearing impaired individual and reads it to the other party. When the other party responds, the CA translates the voice into text for the hearing impaired person to read.

Other TRS services include Voice Carry Over for individuals with hearing impairment who want to use their own voice, Hearing Carry Over for those with a speech disability but want to use their hearing, Speech-to-Speech Relay Service for those with a speech disability, and Shared Non-English Language Relay Service for non-English speaking individuals. Captioned Telephone Service uses special telephone equipment to display captioned conversations, Video Relay Service allows individuals to use American Sign Language to communicate with the CA using video conferencing equipment, and Internet Protocol (IP) Relay Service uses the internet instead of the telephone to relay text to the CA.

All providers of interstate telecommunications services contribute to a TRS fund, which covers the costs for providing these services to speech and hearing impaired individuals. States cover fees associated with intrastate TRS (communication within the state) through surcharges on telephone bills. Interstate TRS fees are paid by the Interstate TRS Fund, which is funded by contributions from all interstate carriers in the United States and administered by the National Exchange Carrier Association (NECA).

Consumer groups filing the Friend of the Court Brief include the Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Association of Late-Deafened Adults Inc, Deaf and Hard of Hearing Consumer Advocacy Network, Hearing Loss Association of America, National Association of the Deaf, American Association of the Deaf-Blind, and Cerebral Palsy and Deaf Organization .

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