For decades, telecommunications laws have included provisions designed to make telephones and other communications systems available to individuals with disabilities. In most cases, however, they did not apply to new technology, especially internet-based communications. The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) was designed in large part to fix this problem, leveling the playing field between traditional analog technologies, which were covered by accessibility rules, and contemporary digital communications systems, which were not.
One of the most important ways the CVAA accomplishes this is through its regulation of Advanced Communications Services (ACS). Under the CVAA, providers of Advanced Communications Services must “ensure that such services… are accessible to and useable by individuals with disabilities.”
But what are Advanced Communications Services?
The CVAA uses the term Advanced Communications Services as a catch-all to describe newer, internet-based communications systems that were not regulated by existing communications laws.
There are four types of Advanced Communications Services covered by the CVAA:
- Interconnected Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, which allow users to make and receive traditional phone calls. Examples include Vonage and MagicJack, as well as some phone services offered through cable and internet providers.
- Non-interconnected VoIP services, which provide voice-based communication, but do not use the traditional telephone system. Examples include Skype, Google Talk, and other voice chat services.
- Electronic messaging services, which offer real-time or near real-time text-based messaging, including text messaging, instant messaging, text-based chat, and email. Examples include Facebook chat, Apple’s Messages app, Slack, and Google’s Gmail.
- Interoperable video conferencing services, which provide real-time video communications. Examples include Skype, Google Hangouts, Apple’s FaceTime, and other video conferencing/video chat services.
What Does the CVAA Mean by “Accessible”?
The CVAA and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations determine accessibility by looking at both how the service is used and how information is made available to individuals with disabilities.
On usability, the FCC looks to whether the “input, control, and mechanical functions” are “locatable, identifiable, and operable” to individuals with disabilities. Service providers must offer at least one setting or mode to make their product usable by individuals who:
- Are blind or low vision;
- Have limited vision and are deaf or hearing impaired;
- Are colorblind;
- Are deaf or hearing impaired;
- Have limited manual dexterity;
- Have limited reach or strength;
- Use a prosthetic device;
- Are mute or unable to speak; or
- Have limited cognitive skills.
In addition, service providers must make their products usable without time-dependent controls.
Service providers must also ensure that “all information necessary to operate and use the product, including but not limited to, text, static or dynamic images, icons, labels, sounds, or incidental operating cues” are made available to users with disabilities. For example,
- Text and other visual information (pictures, charts, etc.) must be available in auditory form and in a form accessible for users who are low vision and deaf (e.g., high contrast, able to be magnified);
- Moving text must also be available in a static form; and
- Audio must also be provided in a visual form (and, if appropriate, in a tactile form) and in a form accessible to users who are hard of hearing (e.g., increased amplification or increased signal-to-noise ratio).
Finally, FCC regulations also require that manufacturers increase usability by individuals with diabilities by:
- Minimizing visual flicker that might induce seizures in users with photosensitive epilepsy;
- Providing an audio cutoff when using an external speaker or headphones through an industry-standard connector;
- Reducing interference with hearing aids, cochlear implants, and other assistive listening devices to the lowest possible level; and
- Allowing wireless coupling with hearing aids when sound is ordinarily delivered through a device held up to the ear.
The FCC may waive the CVAA requirements for specific features or classes of services, but has thus far done so on only a limited basis.