Net Neutrality and people with disabilities

When it comes to protecting the civil rights of people with disabilities, eliminating Net Neutrality means taking a step back from decades of progress.

Pro-net neutrality rally in 2014
REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

A great move forward in the protection of civil rights occurred when in 1996 when the 104th Congress of the United States passed amendments the Telecommunications Act of 1934. We may not associate civil rights with telecommunications legislation until we consider the traditional goals of universal service and the impediments that communications technologies impose upon people with sight, auditory, cognitive and other disabilities.

Today, 83 years of forward progress towards true universal service inclusive of people with disabilities is under assault as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an independent agency of the US national government, considers repeal of Net Neutrality rules implemented in 2015. In the following paragraphs I will explain how Net Neutrality is a civil rights issue, how the repeal causes a step backwards and tell some of what can be done to stop this retrograde motion regarding the civil rights of people with disabilities related to telecommunications.

The Communications Act of 1934: as amended by Telecom Act of 1996 included many relevant clauses, including Section 255. These rules require telecom manufacturers and service providers to remove barriers for people with disabilities. I spoke to Dr. Paul Michaelis who recently retired as a Distinguished Engineer at Avaya who has served on FCC advisory committees that address the needs of people with disabilities. Dr. Michaelis points out that “in the absence of regulatory enforcement by the FCC, modern telecommunication systems may fail to provide functions and capabilities needed by people with visual, auditory, or cognitive impairments.”

Section 255 is an example of laws attacking such challenges. According to the Access Board, Section 255 requires that “Manufacturers must ensure that products are ‘designed, developed, and fabricated to be accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities’ when it is readily achievable to do so.”

Created in 1973 the Access Board’s website says, it “is an independent federal agency that promotes equality for people with disabilities through leadership in accessible design and the development of accessibility guidelines and standards.” The agency’s purpose is “to ensure access to federally funded facilities.”

Since under the Americans with Disabilities Act organizations involved in interstate commerce must comply with many of the regulations that govern the national government’s conduct towards people with disabilities, the Access Board also serves as a valuable source to industry. The Access Board helps businesses understand and interpret the laws, provides guidelines and helps businesses in complying to legislation including Section 255, and the law’s better known cousin Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (amended in 1998).

At this point you may be saying to yourself, “all well and good Guy, but what does this have to do with Net Neutrality?” My answer is that much has changed since 1996. A major shift in the telecom industries has been the transition of many telecommunication services once delivered by the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) to delivery over Voice over IP (VoIP) based services. Increasingly services that were once delivered as Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS), to which laws including Section 255 apply, arrive today at homes and businesses over cable systems and Internet Protocol based fiber optics networks. Enter Net Neutrality.

After significant public discussion, recognition of this trend was addressed in 2015. The FCC Net Neutrality rules included provisions classifying Internet Service Providers (ISP) as "common carriers" under Title II as defined by the Communications Act. Among the implications of this move was to make the 1996 amendments to the Telecommunications Act apply to VoIP, something ISPs had claimed a prior exemption.

You might also be thinking, okay, but a civil rights issue? To answer, I ask you to close your eyes. Think about the telecommunications technologies you interact with in a single day.

Dr. Michaelis said, “Consider the problem faced by someone who is blind who needs to dial a number on a phone that has a touchscreen instead of physical keys.” He adds, “another problem is faced by people who are deaf. Many video telephony systems,” which one might think would present an answer, Michaelis explains, “are not usable for sign language communication because they don’t have adequate resolution and tend to blur rapid gestures.”

Michaelis continued, “To make matters even worse for these individuals, TTY / TDD text terminals that work reliably on traditional telephone systems often do not work with VoIP systems.” He concludes, “Although these problems are solvable, I worry that the solutions won’t be provided if the FCC doesn’t require it.”

Just as the stairs at the entrance of an office building can impede someone in a wheelchair from getting to work when no ramp is available, so too without reasonable accommodations, the many features of office telecommunications technologies impose barriers for people with disabilities. This is not a trivial issue for the many capable and intelligent people who happen to have disabilities and who are entitled to the same employment chances as you and I. Further, without regard to race, gender, ethnicity and other traditional civil rights categories, we are all getting older. As we do, more of us will find ourselves facing such challenges. It’s a fact of life.

That is why the civil rights expressed by the will of the US Congress in the 1996 amendments to the Telecommunications Act are so important to everyone. That is why the requirements were extended to VoIP via the Net Neutrality rules. These facts prove that the repeal Net Neutrality rules will be a step back in decades of progress in civil rights protections and the leveling of the playing field for everyone.

If you agree with me, there are many things you can do to add your voice to the growing chorus of support for Net Neutrality. According to the website, “the FCC is … overseen by Congress.” Let your congressperson know that by repealing the Net Neutrality rules the FCC will be acting adverse to the will of Congress.

Also, according to Whitehouse.gov, “The President is responsible for implementing and enforcing the laws written by Congress.” Let President Trump know your feelings.

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