Last week the Australian Government announced that there would be a new provider for the National Relay Service (NRS). For those not in the know the NRS is the service that allows people with hearing and speech issues to access the phone through a third person who assists by voicing typed messages and typing voiced messages. There are other nuances of the service too such as assisting people who have speech difficulties be understood over the phone. There is also the Video Relay Service for Auslan users. Let’s not forget SMS relay and the emergency relay service too. No question it is supposed to be a fantastic service. Here is hoping that Concentrix , the new provider, can maintain the lofty standards of old.
I say standards of old because the current NRS is no where near the standard of old. It had become so bad in recent times that one would only ever use it if forced too by absolute need. Wait times were appalling, drop outs occurred and I found myself, more than once, being asked bizarre questions, “Give me an idea of what you will be talking about?” I was once asked. I answered this by saying I am just calling to say I love you. They must have got a shock when I was actually calling on NDIS business. I was once told I could only wait three minutes on hold. I tell you this was rubbish and is apparently not even policy. Imagine phoning Telstra and only being able to be on hold for three minutes? FFS, nothing would ever get fixed.
But yes that is what the NRS had become. A bit of a shambles actually. How sad it is that this is what it has become. I have fond memories of when the NRS started under the old provider, the Australian Communication Exchange, (ACE). ACE set the standard and unfortunately those lofty standards of old were not maintained by the ACE of today. It came as no surprise to me that they did not win the new tender.
But still it is sad … ACE were an institution. They were trend setters. They delivered the initial NRS and they were established and run, at least initially, by Deaf people. They lobbied for, eventually tendered for and won the original NRS tender. They delivered a top quality service where consumers were at the forefront. More importantly, from my point of view, as an employer they employed people with disabilities. True, most of them were deaf but they did not just employ them they provided them with opportunities in management. These people with disabilities led the organisation and because they had walked the talk they ensured that the services that were delivered responded to the needs of the consumers. We are never likely to ever see the likes of it again.
Something unravelled after 2005. I do not know what. I suspect that there was pressure from the Government for change and the leaders at the time stood up to the Government and said NO! They tried to maintain a model that was working well. Why fix what is not broken? In fact, I am told, they had case reserves of some $14 million dollars.
Then change came. The deaf and disabled staff were systematically laid off and replaced, no doubt, by accountants that had no feel for the community. From that point onwards ACE and the NRS, in my view, went down hill to the present shambles that it currently is. I am told that the $14 million cash reserves have been virtually whittled away to nothing.
In 1999 I became manager of an innovative new program. It was Australia’s first ever mentor program for young deaf people. I was charged with developing the service model, setting up the office and recruiting the staff. Unashamedly I wanted it to be like ACE. I wanted people with a disability to be at the forefront. At one stage the program had four full time staff. All who had a disability, including me its manager.
We also had a pool of trained and paid mentors. These were casual staff, 30 of them who were all either deaf or blind. Yes blind, because so successful was the initial program that the Government expanded it to include young people who were blind as well. ( I am deliberately leaving out terms like hearing impaired, vision impaired etc – just for the narrative. So any sensitive petals out there that like PC terms, do calm down.)
I was proud of the program. It was the first of its kind. Its aims were to provide young people who were deaf or blind with tools for life, We called these Deaf Life Skills or Blind Life Skills. The program was mentioned as best practice at the World Mental Health Conferences for the Deaf in 2000 in Denmark. Like ACE the program was systematically dismantled by Ablebods that thought that they knew better but in reality knew next to nothing.
But still I am proud. It was a program for people with a disability, developed by people with a disability and administered by people with a disability. Not unlike ACE. They were heady days. Like ACE the program is no more. The services we developed are still around but delivered sporadically and with little purpose. A little bit like the original NRS. A world class program destroyed by people who thought that they knew better but ultimately knew very little.
We still have the NRS. We have a new provider. Let’s give them a chance. I am told they have a smaller budget to deliver. I am told there is no consultative committee to hold them to account. I am told that budget cuts will mean the 24/7 service is under threat. With a smaller budget the new provider have to provide, supposedly, what is being provided now. Voice to text, text to voice, Video relay, SMS relay, Voice to Voice relay, captioned relay calls, IP relay calls and the like. No doubt they will have to employ new managers, new relay officers, develop promotions and accessible information. Basically they are starting from scratch with less. And worse, with seemingly no consumer voice or input.
Yup, I am worried. Proof will be in the pudding. Who knows? They may surprise us all. Here is hoping it’s not an Almost Demise