Voice calls for deaf people
Everyone depends on communications, and most of us take for granted that we can pick up the phone, turn on the TV or surf the net. However, these everyday services can pose real difficulties for some disabled people.
At Ofcom, it’s part of our job to make sure that everyone has an equal chance to enjoy the benefits that modern communications can bring. That’s why we announced in our Access and Inclusion consultation (March 2009) that we would tackle the biggest problems faced by disabled people.
To begin with, we’re looking at the text relay service. We know this service is very important to people with hearing difficulties as it helps them to use the phone. However, it relies on technology that is 30 years old and, of course, many innovations have arrived since then including email, texts (SMS) and instant messaging.
To help us understand the issues, we asked the independent consultancy Plum to find out what people with hearing impairments actually need from communications. We also wanted to know whether those needs are being met, and whether new relay services can provide a solution.
Plum’s report has told us a great deal, and we’re pleased to present a summary of it here. We’re also grateful to the many people and organisations who helped with this important piece of work.
We are firmly committed to making sure that people with disabilities can get more from communications. At the same time, this is not just a matter for Ofcom: a wide range of issues needs to be discussed with government, the communications industry and disability groups.
We will have more to say on this important work later this year.
Ofcom July 2009
Voice calls for deaf people
A summary of the independent report by Plum Consulting
What the study covered
We all need phone services, and it’s a need that is growing all the time. We need them to find work and earn a living; to keep in touch with our family and friends; to find information and shop for things we need; and simply to take part in life.
But if you have serious hearing problems, the simple act of making a phone call isn’t simple at all. So in this study we looked at what deaf people need from phone services. We looked at whether those needs are being met, and asked if there are other services that could meet them better.
Services for deaf people: the situation now
There are around 850,000 severely and profoundly deaf people in the UK. For them, making a normal phone call is either difficult or impossible. Of course, there are other ways of communicating and many deaf people are heavy users of email, texting and instant messaging. But although this puts them on equal terms with hearing-people, none of these options is quite the same as a phone call.
After all, a call is about natural and flowing conversation with all the emotions and subtleties of the human voice. That isn’t the job of an email or text, and the time lag between sending and receiving makes this kind of ‘conversation’ painfully slow.
However, there is a service created especially for deaf people. It’s a basic text relay service which is funded by BT and operated by the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID). It’s available throughout the UK, 24/7, for the price of a normal phone call.
Although deaf people told us they value the text relay service, it only has 11,000 regular users and the figure is decreasing. People in our discussion group told us that the service:
- is slow, providing a typical conversation speed of just 30 words per minute. This means they can’t get much work done, and even simple social calls are a frustrating experience;
- doesn’t allow natural, fluid conversation;
- often suffers interruptions as relay operators change shifts or take emergency calls;
- doesn’t work well for inbound calls. Hearing-callers often don’t know they need to dial a prefix to trigger connection to the relay centre;
- won’t work with the automatic systems used in many call centres;
- suffers from high hang-up rates by hearing-people who receive basic text relay calls; and
- can suffer from mistakes when the conversation includes professional jargon or detailed information. This can be a real problem in many jobs, and when ordinary customers are dealing with businesses.
How things could be better
Our research suggests that if deaf people could use phones in the same way as hearing-people, they could:
- do a lot more at work;
- deal with urgent tasks quickly;
- find it easier to look for, and get, work; and
- benefit from the opportunities opened up by phone work (‘teleworking’). For example, the daily commute to work for deafblind people is particularly difficult, and the phone could provide them with a job they could do from home.
From our research, we know that deaf people can find calling a shop or ordering a takeaway a stressful experience. It can also take a long time.
Without normal phone contact, there’s a social cost, too: some deaf people have lost touch with friends and family who refuse to use the basic text relay service and don’t use e-mail. Some depend instead on a partner or child to relay phone conversations, and feel helpless when they’re not available.
The potential of new relay services
There are two new types of relay service, and both are widely available in the US. They’ve also come to a few EU member states, but have only been used to a small extent in the UK. They are:
- The video relay service (VRS). This is for people who are fluent in British Sign Language, with a signer using a two-way video link with the deaf person to relay a conversation; and
- The captioned telephony service, for people who are severely deaf. With this system, the relay operator uses software that recognises the human voice. It puts a caption (with a 2-3 second delay) onto the hearing-person’s voice, and this is shown on the deaf person’s terminal display.
Both systems still suffer from some of the drawbacks of basic text relay. They’re not private, and mistakes can crop up when it comes to technical or complex language. But they’re typically three or four times faster than basic text relay, and are much better at providing flowing conversations and the subtle expression that adds to the meaning behind the words.
We worked with 21 deaf people in our study, and all of them have used one of the new relay services at work. These people have different levels of deafness: eight are profoundly deaf, nine are hard-of-hearing or severely deaf, and four have impaired sight and hearing.
As a group, their general feeling was that the new services have major advantages over basic text relay. They told us that these new technologies:
- make it easier for their hearing-colleagues, clients and bosses to work with them;
- help them to get through a lot more work;
- are a useful substitute for face-to-face interpreters, and for making and receiving phone calls. This is like having on-line interpreters whenever they want them;
- help them to look for work, and equip them to work better in phone-based teleworking jobs;
- help them feel less isolated and lonely, and give their self-confidence a boost in their daily lives;
- mean they don’t have to depend so heavily on other family members; and
- mean much quicker calls, and a lot less stress, when they make everyday contact with shops or services.
As for the cost, we believe the captioned service should be about the same per minute as the basic text relay service. However, the cost of the video relay service could be a lot higher.
Even so, when you take into account the faster conversation speeds, and therefore the time you save, it could be that both new services are actually cheaper to provide overall than the basic text service.
If these new services can be priced at normal call rates, the US experience – and feedback from deaf users in the UK – suggests that demand could be heavy. In turn, this means that the total costs of providing these services on a big scale could be high. On the other hand, our research shows that the economic and social benefits could be considerable as well.
My comments: What took them so long! We knew all this a long time ago! Haven’t looked at the gobblygook version but I baulked on how they illustrated that it will cost a lot of money to include us Deaf people but it will have economics/social benefits. This is a wrong approach and implies we should be so grateful that they are recommending that lots of money should be spent on including us. If they got their act together a long time ago and force telecoms industries to keep their eyes on the Deaf ball all along, it wouldn’t need to cost this much, doesn’t it.