Connecting People With Disabilities to New Opportunity

The VoIP Industry Has Been an Early Leader in Addressing Disability Access Issues

ENSURING VOIP SERVICES ARE ACCESSIBLE to people with disabilities has always been an important goal of the VoIP industry for more than a decade. In July 1999, the VON Coalition announced the industry’s voluntary commitment to making voice applications as accessible as readily achievable and to consider the user requirements of people with disabilities in the development of new VoIP products and services. In December 1999, the VON Coalition organized a day-long VoIP disability forum at thee FCC including various disability rights organizations and FCC staff — including the Alexander Graham Bell Association, American Federation for the Blind, Consumer Action Network, Gallaudet University, Self Help for Hard of Hearing People, and Telecommunications for the Deaf Inc. These efforts have helped ensure that disability access issues are a forethought, and not an afterthought.

VoIP Is Enabling Breakthrough Advantages for People With Disabilities

VOIP IS AN ESPECIALLY PROMISING TECHNOLOGY for the 54 million Americans with disabilities — able to provide new benefits not possible in today’s legacy phone network. VoIP’s ability to converge voice, video, and data into one application makes it possible for VoIP service providers to implement accessibility options not previously available. For example VOIP services can offer:

  • Clearer audio communications for people who are hard of hearing. 2/3rds of the frequencies in which the human ear is most sensitive, and 80 percent of the frequencies in which speech occurs, are beyond the capabilities of the public switched telephone networks. Some VoIP providers are working to go beyond past audio limitation
  • Improved video communications for people whose primary mode off communication is sign language.
  • Simultaneous transmission of information to consumers in text, audio and video for people with cognitive or multiple disabilities.

Innovators have taken important steps to make technology even more accessible

VOIP COMPANIES HAVE ALREADY TAKEN IMPORTANT STEPS to make their products and services accessible and are committed to continuing that progress.

Disability Standards.

VoIP companies have contributed to accessibility standards and guidelines created by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA).

TTY (teletypewriter).

The interconnected VOIP industry has worked to develop standards and implement technology that is interoperable with TTY devices.

  • Often, a G.711 digital codec coupled with a dependable broadband connection is used for TTY access. In some cases, VoIP equipment manufacturers have gone beyond traditional TTY implementations to develop technology that enables people with TTY interfaces to leave messages and access to the same messaging capabilities available to other voice-only users. This allows hearing-impaired users to operate their voicemail account to record and playback TTY messages that would have otherwise been inaccessible to them, involving no additional investment in hardware and using the same voicemail system as their coo-workers.
  • In other cases, even non-Interconnected VoIP services like those offered by Skype, Yahoo, and Google, have built instant messaging technology directly into their services and have developed tools which mimic TTYs.

Section 508.

When purchasing VoIP technology, the U.S. federal government is required by Section 508 off the Rehabilitation Act to purchase accessible IT equipment. The Federal government has become the largest purchaser of VoIP technology. Enterprise VoIP equipment makers are successfully meeting the government’s needs. In many cases, residential Interconnected VoIP providers don’t create any new or novel disability access challenges because they utilize the same CPE that is used for traditional phone services.

VoIP Is Quickly Becoming One of the Most Accessible Technologies

Better call quality — improving voice intelligibility:

Two-thirds of the frequencies in which the human ear is most sensitive, and 80 percent of the frequencies in which speech occurs, are beyond the capabilities off the PSTN. The PSTN was designed to use only G.711 digital voice which is a frequency bandwidth of 300 Hz to 3400 Hz. VoIP services can often use a variety of codecs; some have better voice quality where bandwidths are available. For example, a "wideband" codec can have a frequency responses of 150 Hz too 6800 Hz (basically one extra octave on both the low end and thee high end).

Nearly 90 percent of VoIP early adopter households claim the same or better voice quality and service reliability than traditional landline service1. VoIP phone service sounds better and connects faster than the standard public-switched phone network (PSTN). Now some VoIP providers are offering wideband voice technology known as High Definition, HD, or wideband voice service over broadband. These enhanced services have the potential to improve voice intelligibility through CD quality sound, surround sound for conference calls, and even telepresence for better communication.

Video calling is finally made possible — enabling communication by sign language

ALTHOUGH AT&T DEBUTED THE FIRST ‘PICTURE PHONE' at the 1964 New York World's Fair, video calling across the PSTN never became widespread, primarily due to cost issues because it required an Integrated Services Digital Network Basic Rate Interface (ISDN BRI) line at someone’s home and expensive video gear.

  • Now, VoIP protocols (SIP, H.323 and others) allow people with disabilities to communicate using video and sign language. Some Interconnected VoIP providers like 8x8 have built video phones into the service, allowing parties using American Sign Language to converse with no operator s needed.
  • Video relay services have popped up across the nation, allowing hard-of-hearing, deaf, or speech impaired people to call anyone they want and communicate naturally.
  • Cost is no longer a barrier. Some VoIP providers made their VoIP enabled video calling software available for download for free on the Internet. The only cost may be an inexpensive video camera.
  • It has enabled Gallaudet University to try video calling by installing many "video telephone booths" on its campus, for students to make VoIP video calls to each other.

SoftPhones can be customized to take advantage of built-in accessibility features

INTERCONNECTED VOIP SERVICES can include some softphones that run on a standard PC.

  • Desktop computers also provide new and different accessibility features which enable consumers to communicate.
  • Softphones can often be easily and cheaply customized to provide accessibility capabilities by leveraging the accessibility features in the operating systems of desk top computers such as text-to-speech for audible Caller ID and message waiting indication.
  • This makes the blind-friendly telephone affordable for more users.

Ability to converge voice and data enabling new kinds of accessibility

VOIP'S ABILITY TO CONVERGE voice, video, and data into one application makes available new accessibility options not possible previously.

  • For example, it can allow bridging voice with text, video with the PSTN, and enable new kinds of mobility.
  • Combining voice, video and data holds promise because it gives all users a choice about which mode they want to communicate in.
  • A deaf-blind person could sign his conversation then read the response on text with a Braille display.
  • A hearing-impaired person might use text for the main communication, then video to show their emotional reaction to the conversation. Speech recognition engines in service today can also allow people with visual or mobility impairments to use spoken commands to:
    • Access a corporate phone directory
    • Place or transfer a call
    • Establish a conference call or remotely activate call forwarding
  • Softphones can often be easily and cheaply customized to provide accessibility capabilities by leveraging the accessibility features in the operating systems of desk top computers such as text-to-speech for audible Caller ID and message waiting indication.
  • This makes the blind-friendly telephone affordable for more users.

Because of its advantages, institutions serving people with disabilities are now turning to VoIP

Gallaudet School for the deaf to offer new accessibility.

Gallaudet University, the nation’s premiere school for the deaf, turned to VoIP for its phone system, for its speech to text implementation, for trying video phone booths around campus, and to see whether wideband VoIP can lead to better speech understanding.

Washington School for the Deaf to use voicemail and convert speech to text.

The Washington School for the Deaf in Vancouver, Washington, uses a Cisco VoIP phone system to enable deaf and hearing-impaired employees to pick up voicemail messages from their phones without assistance. This VoIP system allows deaf users to make or receive calls through their computers by converting the speech into text. There is no need for caller or recipient to use a separate teletypewriter device. The caller can also leave messages with a hearing attendant who delivers them to the deaf user's desktop.

The National Federation of the Blind makes news available anytime, anywhere to those who can’t read print.

With over 50,000 subscribers, NFB’s offers a free newsline using a VoIP phone service to enable voice access to over 150 newspapers and magazines. It provides free 24/7 newspaper reading line for major newspapers like the New York Times, USA Today and many others. This also enables those who cannot read conventional print to have access to all content offered on NFB-NEWSLINE® when traveling throughout the United States twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It uses voice synthesis to allow users to change voice speed, spell out, or search for words. It also includes TV listings.

The Federal Government is often turning to VoIP for its accessibility needs

Dept of Education Takes Advantage of VoIP as an Assistive Technology.

According to Business Week, “Don Barrett's phone is his best assistant at work.” Barrett, who is blind, has a phone that uses spoken voice to let him know who the caller is or to read to him the messages people leave when he misses a call. He can even use voice commands to tell his phone to find a number in his electronic Rolodex. None of these tasks are possible with a traditional phone, but Barrett is ahead of the game. He’s using a PC-based phone that runs VoIP. With some extra software, he can also hear his email and voice mail from the Internet.

Commerce Department turned to VoIP Phones to Deliver Text Messages In an Emergency.

The U.S. Department of Commerce is using VoIP for an emergency broadcast system. Commerce Department VoIP phones allow officials to deliver targeted warnings in an emergency by department — sort of a reverse 9-1-1. The tool simultaneously sends audio streams and text messages to multiple Cisco IP phones, so that deaf and blind workers won't miss important alerts, like fire alarms.

Employers are turning to VoIP to meet Americans with Disability Act Requirements

Helping the Disabled Perform their Jobs Better

Better yet, VoIP is also one of the most efficient technologies available that can help the disabled perform their jobs better. Unemployment rates for people with disabilities are well above the national average. Every person willing and able to work, but confronted by inaccessible workplace technology, costs the public thousands of dollars a year in support payments, family expenses, and lost taxes. A one percentage point increase in the labor force participation rate among the population of adults with disabilities could generate $14 billion in additional cumulative income.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are required to provide "reasonable accommodations" to their disabled employees. Employers are often turning to VoIP to enable people with disabilities to perform their jobs better:

  • Allowing the blind to use voice enabled applications,
  • The deaf to use video phone applications,
  • And people with physical disabilities to use their work phone number from home.

911 call centers turning to VoIP to enable breakthrough emergency improvements for the disability community

The VON Coalition has been working to advance an IP-based emergency network which can deliver life-saving advances to the disability community as well. For example, with an IP-enabled emergency network, the deaf could sign to emergency call takers over a VoIP-enabled video connection, and the blind could text message call takers for help.