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University of Iowa News Release

March 10, 2003

Law Students' Bill Would Expand Disabled Phone Access

More disabled Iowans would qualify for state aid in buying specially adapted telephone equipment under a bill before the state legislature that was drafted by students in the UI Law Clinic.

The program, Telecommunications Access Iowa, currently helps people with hearing, speech or related disabilities to purchase telephone equipment specially adapted for their use, if they meet income requirements. The UI students' proposal expands the voucher program to include people with cognitive or physical disabilities, as well.

"Iowans who have suffered from strokes, have decreased mobility due to age, live with mental disabilities and suffer from muscular dystrophy, paralysis and Downs Syndrome are just some of the people who need this legislation," said Anne Burmeister, a second-year law student who helped craft the proposal. "For instance, if a person isn't able to remember numbers due to a stroke, they could purchase a telephone with pictures on the buttons that dial important numbers, like their doctor or 911."

Burmeister said 20 other states have already expanded their program to make more people eligible for a state voucher and others are considering the expansion this year.

"Almost half the states have expanded their programs already, so we're just asking that Iowa does what's fair," said Burmeister.

No state or federal tax money is used to pay for TAI vouchers. Instead, the money comes from an annual assessment on local telephone companies that is based on the revenue each company generates in the state. For the year 2001, the most recent year for which figures are available, QWEST Communications paid the largest assessment for equipment purchases at $34,800. Numerous small, locally owned telephone cooperatives were assessed less than one dollar.

In 2002, 573 people received TAI vouchers to purchase $127,600 in specially adapted telephone equipment, Burmeister said. The expanded program would increase the cost of the voucher program by about 13 percent, according to the students' proposal. The total assessment on local telephone companies throughout the state would increase by about $50,000, according to the study.

"The legislation will benefit hundreds of Iowans while imposing minimal costs on telephone companies," Burmeister said.

Burmeister added the Iowa Utilities Board, which oversees the TAI program, acknowledged in January that there is a need to extend services to Iowans with mobility, cognitive, sensory and other physical impairments that limit their ability to use or access the telephone system.

Other UI law students who worked on the proposal include third-year student Elizabeth Reyes and second-year student Erin Kastberg. The Iowa Law Health Policy and Disability Center and Iowa Program for Assistive Technology also provided assistance.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

CONTACT(S): Tom Snee, 319-384-0010,