Deaf get teletype service after a nine-year battle

Relay cost will be shared by telcos

The information “divide” closed a little last week with the introduction of teletype translation of telephone calls for deaf and partially hearing people, after a nine-year battle calling on the aid of the Human Rights Commission.

The service will be free and has been ranked as a Telecommunications Service Obligation (TSO), so its costs will be shared among New Zealand’s telcos.

US network company Sprint set up the service, but the local end will be handled by Counties Power.

What seems a clumsy interface involves the deaf person at one end of a phone connection typing a message, which is read out by an operator at a callcentre to the hearing person at the other end. The process is, naturally, reversed for messages in the other direction. The service will also open phone calls to people with speech disabilities.

Associate Communications Minister David Cunliffe, launching the service, asked on behalf of sceptics: “Why this service? Why not give everyone a mobile phone? Why not wait until everyone has access to the internet? Why not wait until we have video phones?” Those questions had been “carefully considered”, he said.

“Firstly, we weren’t going to wait — the deaf community has waited long enough. Secondly, although many deaf people do use text messaging and email, this does not deliver the real-time communication of a telephone service and it involves an additional cost. We felt strongly that this service should be as close to the standard telephone service as is practical. It should be instantaneous, interactive and widely available.

“And that is just what we have got. The relay service means that anybody can use an ordinary telephone to call a deaf person — there is no need for the hearing caller to have any special equipment.”

Looking at it commercially, the service opens up a greater market for businesses who can now communicate with a sector of the population they weren’t previously able to reach easily, Disability Issues Minister Ruth Dyson said. Deaf people can participate more fully in the workforce and, as several of those present pointed out, order fast food and other necessaries over the phone. Pizza seemed to figure largely in several participants’ vision of the enhanced world of communication.

Counties Power head Neil Simmonds sees other potential uses for the contact centre that the company has set up to house the readers; this may also see use in support of the company’s regular business, he says. The centre will initially have about 12 staff, but can be expanded to about 30 on the same premises.

Counties Power and Sprint were brought together by local entrepreneur Gaz Maroof for a bid in response to the government’s request to tender. Sprint has had experience setting up deaf relay on US territory and in Puerto Rico, but the New Zealand system is its first overseas job.

The launch naturally included a number of test calls between the ministers and deaf people present, as well as one offsite at the Van Asch deaf education centre in Christchurch.

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