4 – Communications Act and Telecommunications Act

Section 255 and Section 251(a)(2) of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, require manufacturers of telecommunications equipment and providers of telecommunications services to ensure that such equipment and services are accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities, if readily achievable. These amendments ensure that people with disabilities will have access to a broad range of products and services such as telephones, cell phones, pagers, call-waiting and operator services that were often inaccessible to many users with disabilities.


Disabled Persons’ Telecommunications Access

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has rules requiring telecommunications equipment manufacturers and service providers to make their products and services accessible to people with disabilities, if such access is readily achievable. These rules implement Section 255 of the Communications Act. Where access is not readily achievable, Section 255 requires manufacturers and service providers to make their devices and services compatible with peripheral devices and specialized customer premises equipment that are commonly used by people with disabilities, if such compatibility is readily achievable. The FCC has determined that interconnected Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers must comply with Section 255.

Products and Services Covered Under Section 255

The FCC’s rules cover all hardware and software telephone network equipment and customer premises equipment (CPE). CPE is telecommunications equipment used in the home or office (or other premises) to originate, route or terminate telecommunications. Examples of CPE are telephones, fax machines, answering machines and pagers. CPE that provides both telecommunications and non-telecommunications functions is covered only to the extent it provides telecommunications functions.

The FCC’s rules cover basic and special telecommunications services, including regular telephone calls, call waiting, speed dialing, call forwarding, computer-provided directory assistance, call monitoring, caller identification, call tracing and repeat dialing. In addition, the rules cover interactive voice response (IVR) systems and voice mail. IVR systems are phone systems that provide callers with menus of choices.

Closed Captioning (47 CFR § 79.1)

The FCC implements the closed captioning requirements of the Telecommunications Act, found in Section 713, to make sure that television is made accessible for people who are hard of hearing or deaf. Closed captioning is a technology that provides visual text to describe dialogue, background noise and sound effects on television programming.

Closed captioning allows persons with hearing disabilities to have access to television programming by displaying the audio portion of a television program as text on the television screen. Beginning in July 1993, the FCC required all analog television receivers with screens 13 inches or larger sold or manufactured in the United States to contain built-in decoder circuitry to display closed captioning. Beginning July 1, 2002, the FCC also required that digital television (DTV) receivers include closed captioning display capability.

In 1996, Congress required video programming distributors (VPDs), i.e., cable operators, broadcasters, satellite distributors, and other multi-channel video programming distributors, to close caption their television programs. In 1997, the FCC set a transition schedule requiring distributors to provide an increasing amount of captioned programming. As of January 2006, 100 percent of all new, non-exempt English language video programming is required to be captioned.

Access to Emergency Information on TV (47 CFR § 79.2)

The FCC implements rules that require broadcasters, cable operators and other multichannel video programming distributors to make emergency information, e.g., pertaining to storms, school closings and other emergencies, they provide to their viewers accessible to persons with hearing and vision disabilities.

Emergency Video Programming Accessibility to Persons with Hearing and Visual Disabilities

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules require broadcasters and cable operators to make local emergency information accessible to persons who are deaf or hard of hearing, and to persons who are blind or have visual disabilities. This rule means that emergency information must be provided both aurally and in a visual format.

What Qualifies as an Emergency?

Emergency information is information that is intended to further the protection of life, health, safety or property. Examples include, but are not limited to, the following:

How Does the Emergency Information Need to Be Made Accessible?

In the case of persons who are deaf or hard of hearing, emergency information that is provided in the audio portion of programming must be provided either using closed captioning or other methods of visual presentation, such as open captioning, crawls or scrolls that appear on the screen. Emergency information provided by means other than closed captioning should not block any closed captioning, and closed captioning should not block any emergency information provided by means other than closed captioning.

Closed captions are visual text displays that are hidden in the video signal.  Closed captioning can accessed  through  a remote control or on-screen menu (all TVs with a 13 inch or larger diameter screen manufactured after 1993 have either analog caption decoder circuitry or support digital television closed captions) or through a  external decoder. Open captions are an integral part of the television picture, like subtitles in a movie. In other words, open captions cannot be turned off. Text that advances very slowly across the bottom of the screen is referred to as a crawl; displayed text or graphics that move up and down the screen are said to scroll.

In the case of persons with vision difficulties, emergency information that is provided in the video portion of a regularly scheduled newscast or a newscast that interrupts regular programming must be made accessible. This requires the aural description of emergency information in the main audio. If the emergency information is being provided in the video portion of programming that is not a regularly scheduled newscast or a newscast that interrupts regular programming, e.g., the programmer provides the emergency information through “crawling” or “scrolling” during regular programming, this information must be accompanied by an aural tone. This tone is to alert persons with vision disabilities that the broadcaster is providing emergency information, and alert such persons to tune to another source, such as a radio, for more information.

What Information about the Emergency Must Be Provided?

The information provided visually and aurally must include critical details regarding the emergency and how to respond. Critical details could include, among other things:

In determining whether particular details need to be presented visually and aurally, programmers may rely on their own good faith judgments.

There could be a limited number of instances when an emergency affects the broadcast station or non-broadcast network or distributor and it may be impossible to provide accessible emergency information.

See more FCC guidelines on broadcasting emergency information

Section 504 Handbook

The FCC Section 504 Programs & Activities Accessibility Handbook (Section 504 Handbook) is a collection of guidelines, information and procedures to ensure that the commission is accessible to individuals with disabilities. The content of this handbook is designed to assist commission personnel in their efforts to provide such accessibility.


For more information, contact the commission at

Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street SW, Washington, DC 20554
Phone: 1-888-225-5322
TTY: 1-888-835-5322
Fax: 1-866-418-0232
E-mail: fccinfo@fcc.gov