Are Your Systems Deaf-Friendly?

Much of the content of IT Week is about communication systems but we don't often realise that large numbers of people in our society have great difficulty in using those systems. For example, what use is VOIP (Voice over IP) to a deaf person or someone with a speech impairment?

There are several million deaf people in the UK, who, apart from their deafness, are just the same as the rest of us. They have a right to be able to communicate in similar ways; this right is now made law in the DDA (Disability Discrimination Act, 1995). Designers of new systems and services must now take into account the needs of deaf and other disabled people and provide equivalent access.

Deaf people can actually use the telephone system quite well by the use of textphones (terminals with keyboard, display and low speed modem). They can even make calls to hearing people via the Typetalk relay service which is funded by BT and run in conjunction with the RNID (Royal National Institute for Deaf people).

Typetalk operators type what the hearing person says and voice the text received from the deaf person. This works very well although it helps if the hearing person is trained to know what to expect. Typetalk users pay a lower rate for their calls to compensate for the fact that it takes longer to type than to speak.

BT should be congratulated on its services for the deaf; in addition to Typetalk, BT has started trials of a new service called TextDirect which will automate the inclusion of a Typetalk operator in the call when needed. This will allow deaf people to publish their phone numbers just like the rest of us. The system will make sure that the deaf user receives text even when the caller is using voice.

TextDirect will certainly encourage deaf people to make more calls and those companies who run call centres will find that they start getting more traffic from deaf customers. Companies will have to make sure that their staff are trained to know what to expect from relay calls. It's also going to be worthwhile to provide at least some staff with textphones so there is no need for a relay operator in the call. Quite a lot of deaf people prefer to speak rather than type and this usually makes for a more efficient conversation with text in one direction only. TextDirect will handle all these combinations automatically even if a call is transferred from a voice user to a text user.

Telecomms network operators (including the mobile ones) will soon have to provide their own relay services or set up arrangements with BT to use TextDirect. Expect to see considerable activity as they figure out how to handle this.

Now that Christmas is close it's a good time to spare a thought for deaf people and investigate how your systems and services could be improved to make them more deaf-friendly. It doesn't cost much and it could give your company a competitive edge. You will also avoid litigation on grounds of discrimination. Remember that about 10% of the population has hearing problems and that could mean 10% more business. Worth a thought? - Disability Discrimination Act TextDirect description

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