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Ofcom report 2009 – for Deaf people – in plain English

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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.

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