IM this article to a friend!

April 22, 2003

Deaf relay in English only, says government

From: New Zealand Herald, New Zealand - Apr 22, 2003


The Government has backed down over the introduction of a telecommunications relay service for the deaf and speech impaired, assuring the telco industry that it will not have to wear the cost of adapting the service for the Maori language.

But the Telecommunications Carriers Forum is still upset at the Government over the handling of the process to decide the technical specifications and cost of providing the service.

Using a relay service, those with hearing and speech disabilities would compose messages using a "teletypewriter", sending them on to a call centre manned by message-takers.

They would then pass on the messages to intended recipients aurally. It is an integral part of infrastructure the Government has sought to implement after complaints to the Human Rights Commissioner about its absence.

In a letter to Communications Minister Paul Swain, the forum, made up of BCL, CallPlus, Ihug, Telecom, TelstraClear, Vodafone, WorldxChange and the Telecommunications Users Association, said interaction with the Government over deaf relay had been "ad hoc, lacked sufficient information and sought views in a vacuum".

The forum pointed out that social policy initiatives "are usually funded centrally out of the general tax base", noting that Treasury had forecast a surplus for the year ending June 30 of $3.5 billion.

In particular, it expressed alarm at suggestions from Government officials that the service would have to be capable of translating messages sent in Maori, to fulfil Treaty of Waitangi obligations.

Last week Swain reiterated that the Government had the mandate under the Telecommunications Act to have the deaf relay service funded by the telcos.

He estimates it will cost $2 million in its first year of operation.

But he made it clear that the service would have to be delivered only in English.

"[Te reo Maori] is not in there any more as any formal requirement. They don't need to worry about that. But we'll need to think about it. Maori is an official language."

Swain rejected accusations that the Government had mishandled consultation over deaf relay, sending the Herald an extensive collection of correspondence with the telcos on the issue.

"They're trying to say the consultation is the issue," he said.

"My personal view is that they don't like the concept full-stop."

The forum is not opposed to the introduction of the relay service, but does not want to pick up the tab for it, especially as it appears the telcos will wear the ongoing costs of providing the service.

"It's an ongoing service just like the Kiwi Share," said Swain.

Last year, Telecom's government and industry relations manager, Bruce Parkes, estimated that such a system would cost $1 million to set up.

Annual costs thereafter would be $3 million to $4 million. He would not comment to the Herald on this occasion.

The deaf community also ran for cover over the issue. The National Deaf Foundation would not comment, neither would Deaf Association chief executive Jennifer Brain, "due to the sensitivity" of the issue.

Associate Health Minister Ruth Dyson, a long-term proponent of the service's introduction, did not share the forum's concerns.

"It all seems to be kicking along steadily, as far as I'm concerned. I'd have liked it to happen a decade ago. It didn't."

Nevertheless, the telcos are urging clarification from the Government to "avoid any risk that the industry is left with no resort but to defend its legal right".

In a letter of reply, Swain said he was happy to rekindle discussion with the forum, and soon.

Eighteen countries operate deaf relay services.

Three of those - Britain, Australia and Canada - finance it through industry subsidisation.

After two years of discussion over the deaf relay issue, Swain still had no timeframe on when it would actually go to work for the deaf community.

Relay service update

Communications Minister Paul Swain has assured the telcos they will not have to foot the bill for te reo Maori to be included in a proposed deaf relay service.

The service will cost about $2 million to set up and may cost millions a year to maintain.

The telcos feel the consultation process over deaf relay has been badly managed. They continue to ask why the Government will not fund the service itself.

Vodafone argues that technology such as text messaging has removed the need for deaf relay.

©Copyright 2003, NZ Herald