I had an email today. A person from a Government body wanted some information about the National Relay Service and how it has changed my life. For those that do not know, the National Relay Service is a telephone service for the deaf. The service allows people who are deaf to call an NRS operator who then calls whomever the deaf person is seeking and relays the conversation via text. In the old days we all had a Telephone Type Writer (TTY) and we would call the operator and bobs your uncle we had a telephone conversation with whomever. The service started in 1995 after an intense campaign to have it established. It was a godsend because, for the first time ever, the deaf could call family, friends, order pizza, get a taxi, book a flight or make phone calls at work without having to look for someone to help them.
I well remember the launch of the NRS. We deafies all waited in anticipation. It was a bit of a let down because the system crashed and didn’t really get working until the next day. At the time I was working as a case manager for an organisation that organised care, in-home support and equipment for people with a disability. My first call was to an agency that provided in-home care. I remember it well because I ended up taking the boss of the agency for dinner for what was a short – thankfully very short – fling.
Prior to the NRS us deafies would get a TTY and all we could do was call other deafies or family members who also had a TTY. The service very much opened the world to us. It truly was a godsend. We are for ever indebted to those early pioneers who fought so hard to set up the service.
Despite the immense value of the service many of us grew to hate it. We knew it was necessary, but we hated it just the same. We hated having to go through a third person. We hated the stilted nature of the conversations. We hated the GA (Go Ahead) and SK (Stop Keying) aspect of it too that made it like a two way radio conversation. But at the same time we could not live without it.
But then in the late 90’s the playing field changed. Mobile phones began to be common place. SMS became the rage. Deafies could now contact anyone at will. At first you could only contact people who were with the same carrier (eg Telstra to Telstra) but thanks to a clever advocacy campaign by the Australian Association of the Deaf (Now Deaf Australia) SMS was made accessible across carriers. This meant you could send an SMS to any phone regardless of the carrier.
Of course SMS is best for short and sharp messages. But we could now contact a friend and say meet us at the bar. Or we could remind the missus to bring home some bread. Often we would text a hearing friend to call us a taxi because we were not near a TTY that would enable us to use the NRS.
What SMS did was give us all a measure of independence where we did not rely on a third person to get our message across. Since then plenty of services have cropped up. For example you can SMS RACV when you break down. We now have an SMS emergency service. Some people have an SMS a courier or SMS flowers type service. While SMS did not alleviate the need for the NRS it certainly made us less dependent on it.
After mobile phones came the internet. The internet has been around for a very long time. Its value to the deaf was not really fully tapped into until the 21st century. With the internet came a host of other services. MSN instant messenger was the first popular one. Then there was Yahoo Instant messenger – (I am not sure which came first.) Now we could just sit at our computers and chat away to everyone. We didn’t need a third person and we didn’t need the NRS … We could just chat away to our hearts content. And it was free. We could talk to multiple people at the same time and we could have group chats and the like.
At the bottom of our computer screens the little boxes would flash meaning someone had sent a message and we needed to respond. Often we would accidently type in the wrong box and this could be embarrassing. Especially if you had been talking sweet nothings with your girlfriend and you inadvertently asked Dean to put on some sexy lingerie tonight. But the deaf loved it. We still needed the NRS but we didn’t need it for or social calls, it was all done at the desktop.
Some of us set up Instant messenger at work. We would have a direct line to our boss and our colleagues. I, for example, would convince other stakeholders and service provider that I worked with to set up an account. This meant that I could now negotiate and make enquiries at will with others in the field without a third person. I sometimes just SMS ahead and say I need to chat about something and the person will get on line or arrange a time to get on line. The consequence is that my reliance on the NRS has reduced dramatically and I can do much of my work completely independently.
It has got to a point where I actually no longer have a TTY. My mobile, my iPad and my computer are all I need to access the phone. Facebook has added another complete dimension to things. Facebook has instant messenger too, to the point that I no longer use MSN or Yahoo. But Facebook also has groups relevant to my work where all number of discussions occur. It is almost like talkback radio. Whatever happens in the big wide world I am fully informed. If I need to ask someone a question about the NDIS I simply put a query on the NDIS group or AFDO page and I will get a response , often within seconds.
All this has happened within the last decade. It is unbelievable what is now possible for the Deaf professional. Sure, it’s not always completely straightforward. Ignorant organisations have any number of firewalls that prevent access to Skype and Instant messenger. Even so I have found that most are willing to provide access once they realise the benefits. With the introduction of the NBN, it is only going to get better.
The NRS, for me, has been relegated to the classification of, “when all else fails”, which is very rarely these days. Through SMS, Email, Instant Messenger and Facebook nearly all my tele-communication needs are met. Using a variety of tools such as my mobile, my iPad and the trusty computer I have can contact almost anyone and anywhere. There is still a need for the NRS to cancel that flight or get that taxi but its a need that, for me at least, is becoming less frequent. The NRS is almost, but not quite, a dinosaur. It will be needed for a while yet but I foresee a day when the need for an NRS will be no more.
BUT the NRS has served a purpose and continues to do so. It opened up doors for us all. We must never forget that. So I say to you all, at the end of July when I have completed my commitments to Dry July, raise a glass to the NRS – SALUT!
 I am well aware the term *the deaf* is considered not PC… It’s just easier to type than “People who are Deaf and hard of hearing” – So if you see “the deaf” take it to mean that.