Stuck in the 80s – deaf access to telecomms

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Imagine that it’s still 1981 and all technological progress has just stopped. So no i-phones – everyone is still walking around with a brick-like phone looking like a muppet. No 3D cinemas. Just 4 channels on the telly. Subtitles only available on Blue Peter and Eastenders. Deaf children still wearing a box around their waist as a hearing aid.

Well, in terms of how deaf people use the phone, you don’t have to imagine, because it really is still 1981.

I can’t hear on the phone so if I want to communicate with the hearing world – *shudder* – I need someone , a 3rd party, to relay or type to me what the hearing person is saying. I need a relay service.

Currently, there’s only one show in town – text relay where I have to type what I want to see and have the 3rd party read it out to the hearing person for me. I hate text relay in its present form. I hate the fact that someone else is speaking for me when I can speak the Queen’s English perfectly well, thank you very much. That the call takes forever. And that I don’t know what the operator is plonked in the middle of my conversation. It feels a bit like getting my Mum to make my phone calls for me. If I were a deaf teenager, I’d be mortified if I had to use this service. In some respects, the dead have an advantage – an ouija board would probably be a more enjoyable and speedy means of conversing with the outside world.

It may have been acceptable in the 80s, but it’s certainly not now. So why are we stuck in the 80s?

I blame the regulators. In a nutshell, the regulatory framework means that only BT is required to offer a text relay service. And BT self-fund it. You don’t have to be a behavioural economist to realise there are no incentives for BT to modernise, improve or market the service. And as for video relay services for sign language users? Forget about it – it’s not mentioned in the regulatory framework.

Does it have to be like this? No. Deaf people in other countries enjoy a much better service. Captioned relay – where the operator uses voice recognition technology to speed up the phone call, where the deaf person can speak for him/herself and read a live transcript on the computer screen – is available in the States. As are video relay services, where an operator transposes text into sign language for deaf people who communicate in BSL. And in the States, they even have a choice of different providers. Competition! How modern!

The good news is that new European legislations mean that the Government and Ofcom, the regulator, are required to make improvements. It’s a shame it took the EU before Ofcom and the Government actually woke up to the current situation but anyhow.

The bad news is that Ofcom and the Government are dragging their heels and not taking it, I think, seriously. There seems to be a bit of ping-pong going on between the two with neither stepping up to the plate. Ofcom seem mired in very narrow perceptions of what the law allows them to do. A review is underway but it’s been going on for so long, I fear it may be another 30 years before it concludes.

Pressure is needed to break the status quo. The UK Council on Deafness is co-ordinating a campaign on this and a range of organisations, including DAART, TAG and VRS Today, are also applying pressure. NDCS has also set up an online campaign action for people to nag their MP about the issue. It’s fair to say that whatever happens in the next few months will determine whether any improvements are ever made to drag deaf access to telecommunications into the 21st century.


2 thoughts on “Stuck in the 80s – deaf access to telecomms

  1. There is opposition to VRS in the UK. A lot centres not on the right issue but on practicalities. Who will fund it, who will USE it. Despite a lot of online campaigns for VRS we still are no wiser about either of these issues. The VRS campaign came NOT from the UK but from Europe (As did recognition of BSL). Obviously deaf have rights to all sorts of things, but the realities are take up must dictate. No-one is going to fund an national system if less than 1% have any intention of using it. As with Minicoms we found take up was very poor by deaf. Syype is also free, and there is iphone access. The NO to VRS people, also allege American companies were offering donations to VRS campaigners to push their systems. This has damaged support for VRS.

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