My first ever phone call on the National Relay Service (NRS) was at work. At the time I was working with Disability South Australia, then known as Options Coordination. I worked in the physical and neurological area. My job was to basically assess and then broker care plans for people with a disability, including technology. There were a lot of private service providers of care. My first call was to Jeanne. She ran a nursing home and also provided care in peoples homes. So through the NRS we negotiated a package for a client and arranged for a meeting. After the meeting we went to the pub and had a chat. This was the start of a very brief romantic interlude. That was the power of the NRS. For the first time I could call hearing people on the phone. I could use the phone to call hearing people who did not have a TTY. This created enormous opportunities for me, both professionally and socially.
For people not in the know the NRS is a service that allows deaf people to contact hearing people via the phone. When it first started deaf people who had a TTY could call hearing people through the NRS. Basically a third person based at the NRS would receive the typed message from the deaf caller and voice it to the hearing person. What the hearing person said they would then type it to the deaf person. In this way a conversation occurred.
Before the NRS the only option a deaf person had was to either have a friend or family member relay messages or to call other people who also had a TTY. With the advent of the NRS deaf people could now work in jobs that required the phone. They could call for a pizza. They could call for a taxi and so on. It was a life changer that opened up a multitude of doors for deaf people.
This was in 1995 and the world has since changed greatly. Now deaf people have enormous telecommunications choices. They can text people. They can text chat with people in real time. They can video chat too. Many services now have a text chat feature where people can contact them and chat about the services and products that they provide. You can send online queries. You can order pizza online. You can book plane tickets, cars and holidays online through any number of apps. And of course we have trusty email. Many of the things we used the NRS for in yesteryear we deaf people can now do independently.
In fact there is a level of loathing for the NRS. Not because it is a bad thing. More because deaf people now cherish the independence that they have. The NRS, for many, is now a service of last resort. When all the options we have at our finger tips fail the NRS is there.
It might be that your car has broken down and you need assistance. It is true that RACV have an SMS service for this but not all drivers are members. Many people have 24 hour roadside assistance with their car purchase. This means these deaf people have to call through the NRS. Tradies generally have to be contacted by the NRS when a pipe blows or a window breaks. Most goods and services, including hospitals, still require you to call. Mind you some GPs actually have online bookings now. The NRS still has a place and a very important one at that. That said one would imagine that the demand for it has reduced over the years owing to the wealth of technological options at the disposal of deaf people.
The Government has recognised this. They think that because deaf people now have this greater telecommunications independence that the NRS is less important. The Government wants the NRS to be scaled back and for deaf people to use the other solutions as much as they can. I do not think this is a bad thing. Savvy Deaf people who are able to use technology to their advantage are the ones most likely to be successful. However, the Government is considering making the NRS a part time service. They are considering scrapping the 24 hour service. This is where my support ends.
It is really simple. Deaf people do not live part-time lives. They are busy and productive people. Like everyone, especially in today’s world, they need ready and easy access to communication. When your car breaks down this can be at any time. When a pipe bursts this can be at any time. People cannot predict when communication will be needed. For this very simple reason deaf people need a 24 hour NRS.
God forbid if your car breaks down at 4am in the morning. Oh bugger, just sleep in the car until the NRS opens at 9 am. Be late for work, lose your job and inconvenience everyone. That is OK because, you see, the NRS is shut. Having the NRS available for anything less than 24 hours is a ridiculous idea. It is not rocket science. Let’s hope the Government wakes up on this one.
The Government has also completely cut Outreach services. Outreach for the NRS basically provided information to the wider public about how the NRS works. It was certainly greatly needed in the early stages of the NRS. We deaf people will all have experienced people hanging up on us when we were using the NRS. Often it is because the person we called thought it was telemarketers or something. People hanging up on NRS calls is still common but much less now. That is a testament to the success of the Outreach program.
One could argue that the need for Outreach is much less now. Certainly the Government think so because they have scrapped it altogether. Arguably Outreach is needed now as much as ever. Especially so if the Government wants more people utilising the technology that they have rather than the NRS.
Outreach could serve a purpose to educate deaf people of the options. It could serve a purpose of educating the wider business community as to how they can adapt their business and services so that communication with deaf people is more accessible. It is very short sighted to do away with Outreach altogether. Rather we should be looking at how Outreach can be targeted better.
I can understand why our Government is looking to scale back the NRS because there are so many innovative telecommunications options available to deaf people now. That said, the NRS is still a critical service. People need it for work, emergencies, arranging services and a whole host of things. Sure we need it less but we are a long way from needing it less than 24 hours a day. Maybe the aim is to make the NRS redundant in 20 years but we are a long way from that now.
Here is hoping that the Government wakes up to this one.