Although the technology is in place, British hearing-impaired people are being denied access to a modern phone relay service. By Cathy Heffernan.
Imagine arriving at work to find that your phone has been taken away while your colleagues still have theirs. And one year on, you're still without a phone.
That's what happened to Simon Pearse and Alan Goldsmith last November. Pearse, an actuary who is hard of hearing, stated using a technology called captioned telephony (CapTel, at captionedtelephone.com) to make calls after his company switched to a digital phone system on which he found it difficult to hear clearly. In captioned telephony calls, an operator turns the voice of the hearing caller into captions on the phone of the deaf caller using voice recognition software. Put simply, it is a phone with subtitles.
Goldsmith, a manager at DSM, a global chemical company, says the system enabled him "to have real telephone conversation. In fact, some people who know me had thought my hearing had returned!" The two men are not alone. An Ofcom feasibility report into relay services found that between 420,000 and 1.2 million people have difficulty in using voice telephony. While many are elderly and could be put off by new technology such as CapTel, the potential uptakes is still huge.
However, relay phone services depend on subsidies to remain affordable for customers : it is adding the human operators that drives up the cost. As Ross Trotter, vice-chairman of the National Association of Deafened People, told the BBC recently : "For hearing people, a phone call costs a penny a minute. For a deaf person using a video or captioned relay service, the cost is nearly £1 a minute".
Although CapTel is alive and well in the US, in the UK the service was subsidies by government funding that cost between £70 and £600 per user. This confined the service to working hours, and not enough people used it and the service closed down last November (bit.ly/captel2) after 18 months, with nothing to replace it.
"I stopped using the phone," Pearse says. But this got TAG (tagcomm.org.uk)-an action group campaigning for better telecom services at fair prices for deaf people-going. The closure of a number of phone relay services in the past few years, including CapTel, prompted people like Ruth Myers, who chair TAG to start a campaign, "Bringing
Deaf Telecoms into the 21st century". TAG is a consortium of organisations lobbying for better telecommunications for deaf people, and is now calling for a review of the current phone relay funding structure, which only covers Typetalk, a phone relay system introduced in 1991.
Typetalk is the dinosaur of phone relay systems. Jeff Whinney, chief executive of the SignVideo interpreting service, explains : "More companies are switching over to digital telephony networks, which makes traditional analogue textphones redundant unless special adaptations are placed within the networks to accommodate them. Second, the last company to sell textphones-Teletec International ceased trading in 2007 and all textphones have to be imported."
For all technology advancement in the past 15 years, there has been no real improvement in access to the phone system for people with hearing difficulties since Typetalk was introduced. Legislation obliges the government to fund Typetalk calls so they can be at the same phone rates as on voice calls. However, despite lobbying by TAG of Ofcom, the department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR)-the former DTI-BT and other leading telecoms providers, no funding has been set aside to ensure that other more efficient relay services which have come into play since legislation was passed have been made affordable-the main reason why they couldn't survive in the UK.
Myers says : "Four decades after telephones became commonplace in British households, many deaf and hard-of-hearing people still struggles to use the telephone network and some cannot use it at all".
'Basic human right'
In contrast in the US, where the onus for universal services in telecommunications is on the industry, all phone customers are charged a small levy which is used to provide captioned telephony and other relay services, allowing companies to offer deaf people phone services at the same rates as other people. Additionally, deaf people in the US can choose from several kinds of relay systems.
Email, chat software and text messaging have, without a doubt, made the workplace (and the world, for that matter) more accessible.
But what happens, when you come across a technology glitch on your internet banking? You are given a voice phone number to call. And there's hardly a 999 email address, is there? It's true what Claudio Pollack, the director of consumer policy in Ofcom : "Access to a phone call is a basic human right".
Pearse and Goldsmith say CapTel allowed them to achieve their potential in the workplace. Goldsmith has reverted to using Typetalk while Pearse has to ask colleagues to take note at conference calls. "I fell a bit of a burden doing this," he says.
Christopher Jones, the director of AccEque Ltd, a company that offers consultancy services in telecommunications for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, agrees : "We are in an extremely poor state for accessibilty and quality for deaf people with telecommunication access. This is affecting deaf people's performance in the workplace." In parliamentary reception last October, Malcolm Bruce MP. Whoose daughter is deaf, describe the lack of modernised phone relay services as "an increasing and unintended form of discrimination that must be rectified". The technology is available to allow deaf and hard-of-hearing people this to be rectified. Now, the will-and the money-need to be found.
What on my line?
Typetalk Deaf people have been using "minicoms" (textphones) to make calls for decades, but they could not be used to call voice phones. The idea of a relay system, where an operator would relay between textphones and regular phones, emerged. The UK's version, Typetalk, launched in 1991. However its analogue machines do not work with digital phone systems-making it unsuitable for workplace.
Talk-by-Text A PC application that allows text calls to be made and received-like Typetalk, a relay system. Faster, but only works on PC's not Macs and users complain that it's difficult to deduce emotion from text-based relay calls.
SignVideo Deaf users call the Sign-Video on a videophone, connecting to an interpreter who pops up on their screen. The interpreter makes their call, relaying between the videophone and voice phone.
CapTel Uses the voice recognition (VR) software. An operator re-voices the hearing person's dialogue into VR software, turning it into text. The web version lets people make calls anywhere, as long as they have a computer and phone. It can even work using a BlackBerry or mobile phone.