Cellular phones that provide clear sound over hearing aids or "speak" usage instructions to the blind could become commonplace under rules that federal regulators plan to enact today.
The new rules to be ordered by the Federal Communications Commission would require that new telecommunications products and services be usable by people who are physically disabled, and could ultimately transform the telephones and services used by every American, said FCC Chairman William E. Kennard.
"This action represents the most significant opportunity for people with disabilities since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990," Kennard said, calling the new regulation "the ADA for the information age."
The communications industry is largely on board with the new rules. Objections that some companies raised at the draft-rule stage were worked out, several industry representatives said.
Disabled people have long complained that many of the mass-market products sold by the telecommunications industry are useless to them. People who use hearing aids, for instance, often have trouble talking on cell phones because the electronics in the two devices conflict. Simple modifications could make usable the high-tech devices that have become common in daily life for many Americans.
Many of these features could come about simply by tweaking the software in today's phones, said Gregg C. Vanderheiden, a professor of industrial engineering at the University of Wisconsin.
For example, the small screens that are showing up on more and more phones could be engineered to provide readouts for a text transmission system used by the deaf. Some of the benefits, such as voice commands for people unable to use their hands, would be enjoyed by anyone using the upgraded equipment, Vanderheiden said -- in the same way that television closed captions are used by people who want to watch TV with the sound off.
Vanderheiden has created a prototype cell phone with special diamond-shaped button that allows users whose fingers might bump unwanted keys to select the buttons they want and then confirm the choice. That button can also be programmed to make the phone speak the function of the other buttons, so that the phone can be more easily used by the blind.
Rather than mandate specific features and "micro-manage" manufacturing, Kennard said, the new rules will require companies to meet with advocates for the disabled and design access into phones from the start.
Kennard said any added expense of creating these features will be more than offset by increased sales.
The costs of implementing the features should not raise prices greatly, agreed Al Lucas, a vice president with cell-phone maker Motorola Inc. who is responsible for designing the company's products so they will be accessable to the disabled.
Cellular companies are ready to comply with the new rules, Lucas said. "We are totally, 100 percent behind it," so long as the FCC does not require onerous record-keeping requirements for companies to prove that they are considering disability issues, Lucas said.
Brian F. Fontes of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association said the FCC won't require that every phone and pager support every feature: "If every single product had to accommodate a variety of disabilities . . . some of those features may in fact be in conflict with each other," Fontes said.
Instead, the FCC is calling for features that are "readily achievable," and will decide whether companies are living up to their obligations on a case-by-case basis.
The FCC is pushing the industry in a direction it has already chosen, said Bradley A. Williams, an analyst with securities firm Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc. "You don't have to be disabled to have desires to seek room for improvement in terms of design and features and functionality," he said.
The benefits of the new rules could extend far beyond the traditional ranks of the disabled, said Jeff Kramer, legislative representative for the American Association of Retired Persons. "For our membership, it's an important issue" to have phones for those whose vision and sight might be fading with age.
But "it's not just for people who are in their seventies and eighties," Kramer said -- "we're finding people who are reaching their fifties are having more problems than they had in the past" with hearing loss, possibly because of exposure to loud music in their youth.