by Melanie Brunson

Does either of these scenarios describe you? You own a cell phone, but are very dissatisfied with it, because it seems that the more features phones have, the higher the price, with less and less accessibility. You'd like to own a cell phone, but you don't, because you can't read the screen, you can't find the buttons, and you don't understand how it works! If you fall into either of these categories, I have one more question to ask you: Have you let anyone know about your dissatisfaction? If you have, you are one of only a handful of consumers who have done so. If you have not, I hope you will read on and that the information below will encourage you to make your needs and concerns known.

If you own one of the cell phones currently on the market, or if you've given up your search for a cell phone you can use because of sheer frustration, you have recourse. There are a couple of avenues you can use to express your concerns, and now is a very good time to pursue either or both of them. First, we need to continue asking cell phone companies for accessible phones, but we need to make sure that we communicate clearly what we expect to get when we ask for them. For instance, we need to be clear that what we want is a phone that provides features such as audio output of menus and other information on the screen, displays that can be adjusted to make them more readable with limited vision and keys and controls that are identifiable by touch. We should also make it clear that although voice commands may be desirable for some people, industry should stop assuming that blind people need to use voice input to control their phones. And we should clearly communicate that we expect to receive both our manuals and phone bills in accessible formats. These should include descriptions of images and graphics.

Now, let's take this issue one step further. Section 255 of the Communications Act requires telecommunications service providers and manufacturers to ensure that their products and services are accessible to people with disabilities, if that access is readily achievable. The law also provides a mechanism whereby customers who believe such products or services do not provide readily achievable access can file complaints with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This complaint process has been in place since the late 1990s.

To date, the FCC has received very few complaints for Section 255 violations. But even when complaints have been filed, the FCC has not been very responsive. Nonetheless, I believe more people should take advantage of this complaint process. It is my opinion that one reason for the FCC's inadequate response is that they don't see the issues as very important to the public. This is nothing more than the squeaky wheel getting the grease. In this case, if it doesn't squeak loud enough, other issues that make more noise get dealt with first. Whether you own a cell phone or not, if you are concerned about these issues, I hope you will contribute to our noise level and explore the possibility of contacting the FCC through the Section 255 complaint process.

If you have questions about how to do that, here's how to get answers. If you don't have a computer and would like more information about this process, call the ACB national office and ask for Eric Bridges. He can put you in touch with one of several people who can help. Members of ACB's information access committee are among those who can guide you through it. The public policy office of the American Foundation for the Blind has also embarked on a concerted effort to encourage people with visual impairments to file Section 255 complaints and their staff is ready to assist as well. In fact, you can e-mail your cell phone access concerns to them by sending a message to [email protected]. They are also putting additional material about cell phones and accessibility on their web site, www.afb.org, including an explanation of how to use the FCC's complaint form.

AFB's Vice President of Programs and Policy, Paul Schroeder, told me, "Over the past several months we have spoken with many consumers with vision loss and we have worked with approximately 20 consumers who have provided us with detailed accessibility problems that are being shaped into complaints to be filed with the FCC. I expect that we will file these complaints in the next few weeks. When they are filed, we will publicize the effort to ensure that the companies and the FCC take them seriously. And now would be a great time for you to file complaints on cell phone accessibility too. In addition, on July 17, AFB sent a letter to the leading cell phone carriers and manufacturers indicating that consumers are frustrated with the lack of accessibility and asking for specific information on what these companies are doing about accessibility. The service providers we contacted were: AT&T Mobility, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, US Cellular, Alltel; and the manufacturers were: Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, LG Electronics, Sanyo, Pantech and HTC Global Services. I sent a fairly specific attachment with the letter explaining accessibility expectations for individuals with vision loss. I asked for the companies to respond with info by August 31. We'll add any information we get to our web site."

I hope you will take advantage of these resources, regardless of whether you own a cell phone. We will put more information about advocacy efforts on these issues in future editions of "The Braille Forum." But I encourage you to be proactive. Don't wait for further information; help to create it.

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