On October 20, 2014, the FCC’s Consumer Advisory Committee (“CAC”) called upon the FCC to develop and implement a plan to ensure that USAC and Lifeline carriers recognize obligations to make accessible communications technology available to people with disabilities.

In particular, the CAC urged the FCC to encourage carriers to work with individuals with disabilities who rely on text message communications on two issues: (1) facilitating Lifeline service that “supports a reasonable level of text message communication,” (2) allowing disabled individuals to remain eligible even if they make no voice call for a specified period, and (3) ensuring that program information is available to individuals with disabilities.

Previously, the FCC has noted the importance of enforcing its hearing aid-compatibility rules to ensure that people with hearing loss have access to advanced telecommunications services, and has stressed the “strong and immediate need for such access,” citing both the convenience and public safety benefits of such technologies.  The FCC has also recently taken enforcement action regarding the hearing aid-compatible rules.  Carriers can utilize lists posted on the FCC website to look up whether a particular handset is hearing aid-compatible.

The CAC’s recommendations go beyond the hearing aid-compatible rules in focusing on text messaging and recommending that disabled individuals’ use of Lifeline phones to send text messages should preclude termination for inactivity for those customers.  The CAC noted that “individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind, or who have disabilities that affect speech, may be more likely to rely on communications via text messaging rather than voice service.”

The CAC also called upon USAC and carriers to “ensure the accessibility of program information, including but not limited to program descriptions, promotion, and eligibility determination.”  The CAC noted that the FCC’s 2012 Lifeline Reform Order did not specifically address access to or information about Lifeline for people with disabilities, and further noted that because of high rates of unemployment such individuals.

The CAC called on the FCC to report on the implementation of its plan within six months of its recommendation, which would be by April 20, 2015.