The Fall and Fall of the National Relay Service.

On my second day of my new job in 1995 the National Relay Service (NRS) commenced operations. I remember it well. I had been to Canberra for a holiday and as you do, you leave at 4pm in the afternoon for Adelaide when your job starts the next day in your little Suzuki Sierra. Cos every one travels 1000 odd kms in a ramshackle car, late in the afternoon and the day before they start a new job don’t they? At 1 am in the morning the little car shuddered to a halt. I had run out of petrol. Luckily for me someone drove over the horizon and stopped straight away. They drove me 30 kms to Pinaroo and back so I could fill up. Suffice to say I arrived back in Adelaide at 4.30 am, ready to commence my new job at 8.30 am the same day.

As one could imagine that first day at my new job was a bit of a blurr. At 3pm my boss kindly told me to go home and rest. I was happy to do so. I knew that the next day, with the commencement of the NRS, that the real work would begin. Indeed in hindsight it was only the NRS that had made this new job possible for me.

For those that are unaware the NRS commenced in 1995. It was an exciting time. Exciting because for the first time deaf people in Australia would be able to make phone calls on their TTY to anyone through a relay officer. Pizzas, taxis, friends, work and a host of other things were suddenly accessible to deaf people via the phone. EVERYDAY, 24 hours a day.

So I arrived at work that second day, very excited. I was going to be able to make a work call everyday and at anytime. No longer did I have to wait for the trial NRS to open. No longer did I have to ask a colleague to call. No longer did I have to book a time with the accountant slash interpreter to make a call. I now had unparalleled access 24/7.

That day I sat excitedly at my desk. I placed the handset on the TTY and dialled the NRS. I was making a call to a client to book a meeting at their home.

I waited for the NRS to answer but all I got was an engaged signal. I tried all day and I could not get through. It seems on this much vaunted first day of the NRS something failed. I know not what but the system crashed and noone could get through. The launch of the NRS was an absolute failure.

But it was just that first day. After that I made thousands of calls. I called clients, service providers, taxis, girlfriends, family, arranged travel – whatever!. It was bliss and so very exciting.

The NRS was a godsend for deaf people and we loved it. The great thing about the early NRS was that it was so community focused. It employed Deaf people, hard of hearing people and people with disabilities. It provided opportunities for people with a disability that no organisation had ever before, or possibly since, provided.

And the NRS was innovative. As technology improved it moved from the humble TTY to internet based services so that Auslan users could access the phone in their own language. It provided people with a hearing loss who could speak an opportunity to use their voice while a relay officer typed out what was being said at the other end. People with speech impairments could listen while a relay officer spoke what they typed. Overtime access was given to emergency services, SMS relay and eventually the NRS could be accessed via the internet. It was brilliant.

Over the years our need for the NRS has dimnishedd. Technology through mobile phones and the internet has provided people who are deaf with opportunities to arrange their life without the need for a third person.We can now buy cars without even speaking to anyone. Seek a car online, organise a loan online, couple of emails and presto, new car

We can arrange holidays via online platforms like Wotif. Chat to friends via Skype. Have realtime text chats through free messenger software. Facebook, Twitter and a host of other platforms provide us with communication access 24/7. Uber eats and Menulog allow us to order home delivery meals without speaking to anyone. As these innovations expand our need for the NRS lessens.

BUT – The NRS is still vital. We still need to make calls to people. Online innovations have their limits. For example a deaf person with depression and who is suicidal may still need to call Lifeline for help. Or text messages and emails may go unanswered and as deaf professionals we still need to make calls to clientele to arrange appointments or exchange information. We still have family who are not tech savvy and we need to call them to get in touch. Not every mechanic has an online booking service so we have to call to book in our car. We still need to call to book things for events like weddings or make a restaurant reservation.  Our cars still break down and we need to call roadside services.There are still Deaf people who struggle to express through English language and prefer to make calls through Auslan and the Video Relay Service (VRS). In short the humble NRS, even if we use it less, is still a vital cog in our lives.

Yet the Government seemingly wants to cut it back to a point where it is a part time service. They want to cut it back and encourage us to utilise all the wonderful innovations that I have just described. This is fine but it is not enough. We can, at anytime, require the NRS because all these wonderful innovations I have described are not foolproof. At work without the NRS many deaf professionals will not be able to function.

A sad development of the NRS in recent times is the wait. In years gone by the answer to calls was instantaneous. There were no long waits. Now it is common that we wait. We get the dreaded message – Waiting for a relay officer. This is the equivalent of being on hold at Telstra while waiting for a customer service officer. This wait can be a long time.

So many times in recent months I have needed information from a client for my work. I cannot wait for a response to an email I need it there and then. I need it to achieve my KPIs and to ensure there is no backlog in my enormous workload. Efficiency is everything. Waiting 20 minutes and sometimes more for a relay officer is not efficient. I dare say this current trend of waiting is placing the jobs of deaf people who must provide fast and efficient services at risk.

Then there are the calls that we make where we are placed on hold by a service. Hearing people have a choice. They can either hangup or wait. A few years ago I had a relay officer on hold for over two hours as I made an urgent call to the Department of Immigration. Today that would not be possible. Apparently deaf callers to the relay service are being told that they can only wait three minutes. Don’t believe me? See the picture below.



This is the trend of the current NRS. There is no focus on the deaf person. There is only focus on the bottom line, cutting corners and saving time. God knows the Government wants to limit the service so that it is no longer available 24/7. They say other options abound so use them.

This is naive. The car that breaks down, the sick deaf person or the deaf person with a mental health issue cant wait for a service to open. What are you expected to do if your car breaks down at 1am in the morning in the middle of nowhere? Wait for the NRS to open at 8am? What do you do if you are home alone and the NRS is shut, deaf and feeling suicidal? Go to bed and call lifeline at 8 am? Life does not wait. For these reasons and many others the NRS cannot be a service that is only available to us at the Governments whim simply because they want to save money.

Sadly the cutting back of services and complete lack of focus on the customer is the trend of the current NRS. Its founder fathers and mothers must look on and weep as they see what this magnificent service is now becoming.

This is the fall and fall of the NRS! Please stop it before someone loses their job or dies – It is a very real possibility!


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