You begin to realise you are getting old when you are sitting among friends or gazing absently into the distance and you paraphrase most of your thoughts or utterances with, “I remember the time….” And so it was last week when I set up my laptop for a meeting and beamed up the lovely Nic from Auslan Services through Skype to interpret for me. I was 150 kms from Melbourne and until then I had to get my interpreters from Melbourne. With travel time and kilometres on the car the cost could be nearly $1000. The further you are from Melbourne the more it costs. So it was not surprising that the first utterance that came from my mouth was, as my bemused colleague looked on at the gadgetry and was asked to don a headset, “…..I remember the time.”
A little over 20 years ago if I needed communication support I had to rely on an empathetic colleague. That colleague was usually someone who could either sign or was prepared to take notes for me. There were very few qualified interpreters and I took what I could. Often to deal with phone calls a colleague would take the call and relay short messages to me while covering the mouth piece. Not that they had the time, they just did what they had to do so that I could do my job.
When I started work the TTY had been in Australia for some time. It was a wonderful tool if you could afford it. Back then it cost as much as a decent television does now. It was only useful if someone at the other end had a TTY. If they did not then it was back to finding someone to relay messages for you. And then in 1995 they finally introduced the National Relay Service. I remember that fateful very first day when I got set to make my first official work call through the new NRS. What a downer that was because the system crashed and we all had to wait til the next day. Later that year I arranged a date over the phone for the first time through the Relay Service. WOOOOO HOOOOO was I beginning to live life!
And here I was a little over 20 years later in 2010. I was 150 kms from Melbourne. I had my spanking new laptop purchased by the Government. I was switching on my spanking new mobile modem that was also purchased by the Government. This laptop and modem were beaming up the lovely Nic from Auslan Services to interpret for me, also paid for by the Government. At that moment I was literally gobsmacked.
Less than five years ago if I wanted interpreters in remote areas I had to pay for them from my program budget. It’s not a vast budget and I have to use it to service half of Victoria. As much as three quarters of that budget was going to interpreting. For me to get two interpreters to Warrnambool, just under 300 kms from Melbourne for a basic two hour meeting cost me over $2000. I was lucky I was on a Government funded program and had an empathetic employer because if I had not, I have no doubt I would be on the dole.
Just for a little moment as Nic interpreted I was proud, simply because I had pushed hard for this solution to the problem. I, with many others, have been advocating technology as a solution to distance and remoteness for the last decade. I am not ashamed to say that as Nic began to interpret for me I was a tad emotional. (I hope I hid it well.)
Just last week my wife, who is deaf and a teacher of the deaf, supported a student 200 kms away through Oovoo. She did this on a post office issued Vodaphone Prepaid Mobile Modem and a little notebook that cost $366. She was able to converse via Oovoo in sign language to the student for over an hour. If she had wished she could have transferred documents via Oovoo. She could have received written work from the student and provided feedback. She could have supported the student’s teacher with advice using the text facility of Ovoo without the need to spend hours driving on the road. AND she did this out of hers and my pocket. Why? Well it seems because the powers that be are not yet with it. There are solutions to issues and cheap ones too. I cannot understand why people are dilly dallying. “I remember the time…..”
And just two weeks ago a friend invited me over for a BBQ. They were showing off their new IPhone 4. They were excited about the new Facetime application. If another person has an Iphone 4 and there is a wireless internet network that the IPhone can log into – crystal clear on the IPhone you can see each other well enough to converse via sign language or interpret. Technically, rather than having to lug around a laptop and a modem, I could use this medium for my interpreting needs. Sure it’s limited by the need of a wireless network BUT consider this? If you are logging into a wireless network you have no need to pay for expensive phone data plans to access the service. I remember the time when a girl put her phone number in my back pocket and my cousin called her pretending to be me because I was too embarrassed to tell her I was Deaf … Yes indeed I am getting old – I would never do that now (Being married is part of the reason)
Why are we not using this simple technology to provide counselling services or early intervention support to parents of deaf kids? This sort of stuff is particularly useful if you are living in rural and remote areas or if you have the issue of transport or childcare. Using a simple laptop and Skype or Oovoo it is possible to provide good quality support. Less travel time, more people time, less CO2 in the air. All the costs of getting the right technology, and these costs are absolutely minimal, would be offset by the reduction of costs in delivering service. All it takes is vision and a willingness to give things a go.
Our current Labor/Bits and Pieces Government is on the ball with technology. It virtually won the election on the National Broadband Network (NBN) issue and superfast internet. The two independents that eventually gave Labor power listed NBN as one of the major reasons they supported Labor. If there is one problem with Skype and Oovoo it is that it can vary in quality. The NBN will put paid to that. And did you know about the Digital Education Revolution (DER)? The Labor Government has provided 2.4 billion dollars over seven years as part for the DER. Any one providing support to deaf people in education needs to look this up and tap into it, Check it out on http://www.deewr.gov.au/Schooling/DigitalEducationRevolution/Pages/default.aspx
It is mind-blowing just how far we have come in terms of communication and technology. More importantly this technology has opened doors for the deaf that we would not have thought possible even 5 years ago. I could and should have mentioned captioned telephony too – space does not permit – but it is another important development. Yes I remember the time when technology was what prevented inclusion of deaf people in many facets of society, the humble telephone was the start of it all. Not now – not ever again. I am proud to say that I played my part in the revolution – Now YOU the reader must get out there and make it all happen. Show your boss, your colleagues or your teacher this article – the world is your oyster.
Arthur C Clarke