In late December 2005, Leonard DuBoff, an Oregon attorney, decided to follow a recommendation he read in a prominent consumer-oriented magazine to save money by purchasing cable TV, high-speed Internet and telephone services from the same carrier. Relying on an advertisement that appeared on television and on the Comcast Digital Voice web site, DuBoff contacted Comcast and arranged to have his telephone service transferred from his existing hardwired carrier to Digital Voice, Comcast's Voice-Over-Internet Protocol (VOIP).
The web site and television commercials made it clear that the Comcast Voice-Over-Internet Protocol is a technology used to transmit voice and related calls over a data network. Most VOIP providers use the public Internet to transmit your calls. Comcast does not; it uses this technology to transmit calls over its advanced broadband network. Comcast Digital Voice (TM) service uses VOIP technology to provide users a number of enhanced new features without sacrificing any of their current phone features or clarity.
The Oregon attorney did not realize it, but he was in for quite a surprise. When the first telephone bill arrived, it contained a notice indicating that directory assistance cost 99 cents per call. Since DuBoff is totally blind, he contacted the Oregon State Commission for the Blind and requested the form to obtain free directory assistance for blind telephone subscribers. He was surprised to learn that Comcast did not have a form on file. DuBoff contacted the telephone company's business office in order to find out how he could obtain free directory assistance mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
This federal statute requires public carriers, such as Comcast, to provide reasonable accommodation for disabled Americans. Free directory assistance is one of those reasonable accommodations that was expressly considered when the ADA was adopted in 1990. Unfortunately, Comcast personnel were unaccommodating; in fact, one of the business office supervisors suggested that DuBoff sue them if he felt his rights were being violated. So he did.
On March 17, 2006, he filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon requesting that the court require the public carrier to provide blind Americans with the reasonable accommodations required by the ADA. DuBoff also asked the court to have the case certified as a class action so that he could represent all other blind and disabled individuals who were similarly situated.
When Comcast executives reviewed the matter, they realized that the law requires companies providing telephone services, such as Comcast, to accommodate their disabled subscribers by providing free directory assistance to those who cannot read telephone books. Interestingly enough, Comcast's hardwired division, also known as Comcast, provides the free service to its disabled subscribers. Apparently, the new online telephone company may have been moving so fast in implementing this new form of telephone service that it omitted some of the legal requirements for many of its subscribers. It would also appear that the organization did not have an appropriate institutional policy for dealing with disabled individuals.
As a requirement of the settlement between DuBoff and Comcast, the phone company now offers free directory assistance to qualified disabled subscribers (as of July 1, 2006). Comcast has also agreed to compensate qualified disabled subscribers who were required to pay for directory assistance prior to July 1.
It is clear that Comcast now recognizes its obligation under the federal law, and it is also clear that the company is willing to do the right thing when reminded what the law requires. The speed with which Comcast implemented the corrective program makes it clear that it is a good corporate citizen and will do the right thing when reminded to do so. Unfortunately, that reminder sometimes must take the form of a federal lawsuit.
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