Deaf adults in Australia from the Seventies, Eighties and the beginning of the nineties will remember what a nightmare it was trying to access telecommunications. I vividly recall stressing out as late as 1994 as Coordinator of an employment project because I could not do my job properly. I had to place people into employment which required that I be able to have quick and ready access to the phone. In Australia, at that time, we still did not have a TTY Relay Service. It was stressful, manic and insane. I bluffed my way through for near on two years. This was before email, before SMS. To say that it was difficult is to put things mildly. Looking back I think I was close to a break down from all the stress.
Back then Deaf and hearing impaired people were very much constrained to mundane and repetitive work. If you worked outside of trades and wanted to work in white collar work you were pretty much constrained to office work – doing data entry or mundane clerical tasks. I know of a Deaf man in Adelaide who worked for the Commonwealth Public Service for well over 50 years and never got beyond third level clerical officer. He was a brilliant man with fabulous language skills in Auslan and English but his opportunities were forever hampered because of his inability to access the phone.
Australia has always been behind comparable Western countries when it comes to technology, even more so with telecommunications. In 1995 we got access to the National Relay Service and the late Nineties saw the explosion of text based communication through email, SMS and instant messenger. With the introduction of the Relay Service and the rapid expansion of text based communication came more employment and social opportunities for Deaf and hearing impaired Australians. No matter that comparable countries had had this access for many years, better late than never.
With the Relay Service and text communication Deaf and hearing impaired people have begun to grasp greater opportunities. No longer are they confined to desk jobs. They can now deal with the public – they can phone out and receive calls or send and receive messages. Schools that cater for the deaf in Australia have been slow to grasp just how technology now impacts on the lives of Deaf and hearing impaired people. Using the Relay service, SMS and email are skills that need to be developed. Unfortunately it is only now schools are beginning to realise this. Sadly, just six weeks ago, I met a hearing impaired female that did not know anything of the text based technology that would allow her to be so independent. She was amazed, schools have a lot to answer for.
Technology has got to the point now that Deaf and hearing impaired people rarely use a TTY unless they really have to. They use MSN, SMS and email. Less and less they use the Relay Service. Apparently this has spooked some people at the Relay Service to the point that they have allegedly told some community organisations not to publicise their TTY numbers if they have them. The story going around the traps is that the Relay Service is encouraging organisations to only publicise the Relay Service Number and do away with their TTYs. Thus ensuring the only way Deaf and hearing impaired people can call these organisations is through the Relay Service.
If true, this is alarming. The Relay Service is a valuable service, many Deaf and hearing impaired people are still heavily reliant on the Relay Service. It is equally true that many, because of SMS, email and MSN have managed to avoid using the Relay Service unless they really must. I am sure this has led to a rapid reduction in the demand for the Relay Service. I am only speculating here but it would not surprise me if the reduced demand has spooked the Relay Service to the point where they have begun to panic slightly. This may explain why they are trying why to have community based organisations and businesses to publish the Relay Service number rather than their independent TTY numbers where they are available.
The day that Deaf and hearing impaired people can do away with the Relay Service can not come soon enough. Sure it is needed now but it is a slow and cumbersome service. I don’t know anyone that likes it. Nowadays it is used mostly as a last resort when email, SMS and MSN can not do the job. The third person, the GA and the SK are frankly a pain in the butt. Community organisations increasingly use instant messenger as a means of communicating online. Telstra has an online text based service for example. The more organisations that introduce this sort of technology the better. Through my work, for example, colleagues have installed MSN so that I can communicate with them in real time. Its free and effective.
It should not be forgotten that there are still a significant number of Deaf people with literacy issues for whom text based communication will always be a problem. These individuals require Video Relay Interpreting or a Video Interpreting Service. This is likely to become a become a reality if Rudd gets Superfast Broadband introduced as he promised.
They day will come in the not too distant future where the text based Relay Service will be obsolete. One wonders if the Government should actually be planning now to get rid of the Relay Service. Would it not be easier to spend money introducing Online text based systems where Deaf and hearing impaired people can communicate directly with people and organisations. It is cheap and easy to maintain the only issue that needs to be considered and resolved is the one of Online security. Just imagine instant and independent communication, free of a third person, any time anywhere. Will we be saying goodbye to the Relay Service soon? … One can only hope so. The day of complete independent telecommunications for Deaf and hearing impaired people could be closer than we think.