Imagine asking your neighbors to order a pizza for you, call your doctor, or tell your boss that you are sick today. Nationwide relay services – which connect telephone users with people who are deaf or hard of hearing – were not required until the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The NAD played an important role in obtaining this provision during the drafting of the ADA. The NAD continues to work hard to ensure full access to the telephone system – addressing issues such as quality, funding, technology development and research, and universal access.
The ADA defines relay services as telephone services that enable people who are deaf or hard of hearing, or who have a speech impairment, to communicate with a person who can hear in a manner that is “functionally equivalent” to the ability of an individual without a disability to communicate by telephone.
The ADA required the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to develop and enforce relay service regulations that encourage “the use of existing technology and do not discourage or impair the development of improved technology.” The FCC has used this directive as a means to improve relay services and foster the development of new technology so relay users are not left behind as these technological advancements occur.
Today, deaf and hard of hearing individuals can choose from many different relay service providers and a wide range of relay services:
For more information about these forms of relay services, see the FCC factsheet at http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/trs.html.
Relay services are provided at no cost (free) to all relay service users. State relay service programs provide and pay for some relay services, such as relay services used on in-state calls made through TTY, CTS and STS. The FCC oversees the Interstate Telecommunications Relay Fund which pays for other relay services, such as relay services used on interstate calls made through TTY, CTS and STS, as well as on all calls made through IP Relay, VRS, and IP CTS.
The variety of relay services available makes it possible for people who are deaf or hard of hearing to select the service that works best for them. However, this variety has also created an unexpected barrier to communication between people who are deaf or hard of hearing or who have a speech impairment. The ADA defines relay services as enabling communication with a person who can hear. Today, the FCC will not authorize payment for the use of more than one relay service that may be needed to complete a call. For example, more than one relay service is necessary for a TTY user to communicate with a VRS user, or for a VRS user to communicate with a CTS user. When more than one relay service is necessary to complete a call, these relay services should be, but may not be provided because they are not authorized by the FCC.
This limitation is addressed in the relay service section of the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT) proposed legislation called the “Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act.” That legislation, when passed, will clarify that relay services are intended to ensure that people who have a hearing or speech disability can use relay services to engage in functionally equivalent telephone communication with all other people, not just people who can hear. In addition, several relay service providers filed a Petition2 asking the FCC to clarify that calls requiring more than one relay service are eligible for reimbursement through the Interstate Telecommunications Relay Service Fund.