August 21, 1998
The Honorable Barbara B. Kennelly
Member, U.S. House of Representatives
One Corporate Center
Hartford, Connecticut 06103
Dear Congresswoman Kennelly:
This letter responds to your recent inquiry about the obligation of a manufacturer's service line to accept calls placed through a TDD (Telecommunication Device for the Deaf) relay system. Please excuse our delay in responding to you.
Your inquiry was prompted by one of your constituents, an individual with a hearing impairment, who attempted to contact a manufacturer's service line using the TDD relay, and was informed that the manufacturer does not accept relay calls. Your constituent received conflicting opinions regarding the manufacturer's legal right, under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), to reject her call.
The TDD relay system was established pursuant to title IV of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Title IV amended the Communications Act of 1934 to require each common carrier that provides telephone voice transmission services to establish a TDD relay system to make telephone services accessible to people with hearing and speech impairments. The manufacturer's refusal to communicate with your constituent is, in our view, unjustified because accepting a relay call places no burden on the manufacturer. The manufacturer is simply required to talk to a relay operator, who then communicates with the individual with a hearing impairment using a TTY or TDD.
There is no question that if a business is covered under the ADA, it is required to accept telephone calls from individuals who have hearing impairments, by using either the relay service or a TDD. The difficult problem in this instance, however, is that a manufacturer is not clearly covered by the ADA. Title III, which prohibits discrimination by private businesses, reaches only those businesses that are "places of public accommodation."
The ADA provides a list of categories and examples in each category of what constitutes "public accommodations," such as, places serving food or drink, like restaurants; places of entertainment, like movie houses or theaters; and places of lodging, like hotels. "Service establishments" constitute one of the categories provided in the statute, but the category includes facilities like hospitals, lawyer's offices, and beauty shops. Manufacturers that are not engaged in selling directly to the public do not operate a "place of public accommodation."
Although the ADA does not cover manufacturers, there may be a state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability, or dealing with consumer protection, that could assist your constituent. Your constituent might also want to contact the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection, at 1-860-566-3290 or 1-800-842-2649; or a local Better Business Bureau. In the event the manufacturer is in a different state, your constituent could call the Federal Information Center for assistance in identifying the agency most likely to handle her issue, and their TTY/TDD number is 1-800-326-2996. Finally, a local group might assist your constituent by calling the manufacturer to discourage them from refusing to communicate with individuals who have hearing impairments by explaining just how simple it is to receive relay calls. A list of Connecticut organizations is enclosed.
I am sorry that we could not provide more assistance, and hope that this information is helpful to you in responding to your constituent.
Bill Lann Lee
Civil Rights Division