When the Tide Comes In: Towards Accessible Telecommunications for People with Disabilities in Australia

When the Tide Comes In: Towards Accessible Telecommunications for People with Disabilities in Australia

A discussion paper commissioned by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

William Jolley, Chief Consultant
Jolley William & Associates

June 2003

4. Access by People with Disabilities

4.1 Overview
4.2 Consumer Representation
4.2.1 Consumers' Telecommunications Network
4.2.2 Telecommunications and Disability Consumer Representation
4.2.3 Deaf Telecommunications Access and Networking
4.3 Disability Equipment Programs
4.4 National Relay Service
4.5 Any-to-any Text Connectivity
4.6 Telecommunications Disability Standard
4.7 Mobile Phones
4.7.1 Hearing Aid Interference
4.7.2 SMS for Deaf people
4.7.3 Emergency services
4.7.4 Access by People who are Blind
4.8 Miscellaneous Issues
4.8.1 Videocommunication
4.8.2 Payphones
4.8.3 Research and Development

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4.1 Overview

This Section discusses the work of some consumer organisations, some specific projects and services, and some critical issues facing people with disabilities in using telecommunications services and equipment. It does not attempt to cover all projects and issues, highlighting major ones which are topical. The material gives some historical background, as well as a discussion of contemporary issues, reflecting the breadth and quality of consumer advocacy carried out in recent years.

There are various peak disability organisations which represent sectors of the disability community. Some organisations focus on a homogeneous group of people to a greater extent than others. For example, the Australian Association of the Deaf is composed of people who are deaf (profound and severe hearing loss), for most of whom Auslan is their preferred language and their Deafness gives them a cultural identity rather than a disability. On the other hand, Deafness Forum Limited represents the whole sector of Deafness and hearing impairment, including people with mild, moderate, severe and profound hearing impairments, people with late onset hearing loss, people with cochlear implants, people with various hearing disorders, and people with multiple hearing/vision loss (includes Deafblindness). The Deafness Forum also includes service organisations, hearing professionals and family/associate support networks. Whereas the National Relay Service and Telstra's Disability Equipment Program are deemed to operate effectively for Deaf and hearing/speech impaired people using TTY text telephones, the equipment program in particular has been a source of concern to the Deafness Forum advocating on behalf of people with a full range of hearing impairments.

One issue that is not explicitly addressed in this section is affordability. In 1999 Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA) surveyed its members on telecommunications issues. The results of the survey have informed WWDA submissions, for example WWDA (2000) and WWDA (2002), emphasising the importance of affordability, usability and training. Although the gender dimension is not normally explicit with access to telecommunications services and products, many women with disabilities suffer the compounding effects of their disability, gender disadvantage, low incomes and physical isolation. The extent of compounding disadvantages emphasises the need for social impact statements, taking into account disability and other marginalising characteristics, in the development/approval of telecommunications products, services and equipment.

Another issue which has not been addressed is staff training and awareness. Notwithstanding that both Telstra and Optus have addressed staff training and awareness as a part of their DDA Action Plans, greater disability awareness among customer interface staff is needed, especially for shop assistants and call centre staff. Telstra's establishment of a national disability hotline is a commendable initiative, creating a focal point within the organisation of awareness in responding to general enquiries (telephone, TTY or email) from customers with disabilities. Anecdotal evidence indicates that many of the newer telecommunications companies seem to have a very low level of disability awareness among their staff. For people with intellectual disabilities and acquired brain injury, dealing with call centre staff can be extremely frustrating. The problem is exacerbated where the performance of staff is largely measured on the volume of calls they handle, rather than the quality of the information and service they provide.

4.2 Consumer Representation

Under section 593 of the Telecommunications Act 1997 the Minister may make a grant of financial assistance to a consumer body for representation of the interests of consumers in relation to telecommunications issues. The purpose is to support adequate representation of consumers' interests in a self regulated telecommunications environment by enabling:

  • Consumers to have a voice in the development of industry codes and practices and other telecommunications industry processes that affect them; and
  • Consumers' needs and interests to be represented in appropriate Government processes that affect them.

Following the Besley Report (2000) it is a specific priority of the 'Grants to Fund telecommunications Representation' program that people with disabilities, and consumers from regional, rural and remote Australia have adequate representation. However, the legislation does not restrict grants to organisations representing residential and small business consumers.

The Commonwealth has allocated $3.4 million over the four years 2002-2006 for Section 593 consumer representation and research funding. A total of up to $700,000 is available for 2003-2004, and the program continues to provide grants of only one year's duration. Admissible costs are salaries and sitting fees, administration and overhead costs, domestic travel, and information resource development and dissemination costs. Some costs, including overseas travel, are excluded. Grants have been made to organisations/projects including:

  • CTN - Consumers' Telecommunications Network;
  • TEDICORE - Telecommunications and Consumer Representation, auspiced by Blind Citizens Australia; and
  • DTAN - Deaf Telecommunications Access and Networking, auspiced by Australian Association of the Deaf. .

Some other organisations, including Women with Disabilities Australia and Communication Aid Users Society (CAUS) have received small grants for specific research and activities. In addition, most of the national peak disability organisations received grants in 2002-03 to cover sitting fees of their members on telecommunications consultative bodies.

Prior to the consumer representation grants program, in 1997 CAUS received a grant from Telstra to carry out research on the needs of people with severe speech difficulties. Owens (1998) summarised people with speech difficulties as a heterogeneous group with a range of needs, abilities and expectations for participation in community life including telecommunications. Owens (1998) identifies access as the major barrier for telecommunications by people with speech difficulties: physical access to and usability of telecommunications equipment, access to information to underpin informed choice, and access barriers presented by lack of affordability - high costs and low incomes. We may conclude that whilst people who are deaf are the most visible and clearly defined group who face seemingly impenetrable barriers to accessible telecommunications, there are many other people with disabilities in Australia who face telecommunications access barriers and whose needs deserve to be represented and addressed.

Recommendation 14 of the Besley report proposes that funding for representation of consumers be extended beyond the current Budget allocation; and that consideration should be given to providing funding on a longer term basis than the existing annual cycle, to ensure greater stability for consumer organisations. It further recommends that provision should also be made for additional resources to assist people with disabilities to participate in industry processes, and to conduct awareness raising activities. Whilst the government has agreed to a further allocation for consumer representation and research of 3.4 million dollars over four years, and has recognised consumers with disabilities and consumers from regional rural and remote areas as priorities; the government does not seem to have addressed the annual funding cycle question, and has not provided a substantial funding increase to relieve the pressure on current recipients nor to allow expansion of the program to new ones.

It is beyond the scope of this discussion paper to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of consumer representation of people with disabilities, but it should be stated that the quality of the consumer representation is observed to be outstanding and the breadth extensive. CTN estimates that over the past five years its workload has doubled, whilst staff resources have been reduced by 30%. Increased workload for consumer organisations has resulted from: the growth in carriers and CSPs, the rapid growth in both mobile communications and Internet usage, increased numbers of consultative committees and industry forums, and increased activity in the development of consumer codes. Organisations with minimal material resources and limited access to technical expertise, have consistently made written submissions to telecommunications inquiries, participated in national forums, and contributed as members of advisory committees. However, with few exceptions, notably access by Deaf people to mobiles and videocommunication using broadband networks, disability consumer representation has remained focused on the fixed line telephone network. This is despite the rapid and sustained growth of both mobile telephony and the Internet, and that it is in these sectors of telecommunications that the rapid technological change has the most effect on service opportunities and network terminals. It is unreasonable to expect telecommunications consumer advocacy organisations to keep abreast of current regulatory, technical and access developments and emerging issues without a commensurate increase in resources.

Recommendation 6: Expansion of Section 593 consumer grants program

That HREOC should consider holding discussions with DCITA towards achieving an expanded telecommunications consumer representation grants program. The expansion should focus on: greater support for the main recipient organisations, rather than spreading the funds more thinly; a substantial increase in program funds; and a three-year funding cycle with annual acquittals to give greater security to recipient organisations.

4.2.1 Consumers' Telecommunications Network

The Consumers' Telecommunications Network (CTN) is a national coalition of community organisations which represents community interests on national telecommunications issues. CTN is an important voice promoting better access, quality of service and affordability of telecommunications services for residential consumers. Its members include national and state organisations representing consumers from non-English speaking backgrounds, Deaf consumers, indigenous people, low income consumers, people with disabilities, pensioners and superannuants, rural and remote consumers, and women.

CTN acts as a forum for community organisations to exchange opinions and become informed about telecommunications issues, enabling CTN to advocate on behalf of residential consumers in discussions with other sectors of the telecommunications industry. CTN's policies are developed in consultation with its members and the wider community and through ongoing research. CTN works with all sectors of the telecommunications industry, and participates in national and international telecommunications forums. CTN has produced many excellent submissions and issues papers, which can be downloaded from its website http://www.ctn.org.au. These documents are PDF files, but accessible versions of most documents can be obtained from CTN directly.

"CTN is a member of the ACA Consumer Consultative Forum, the ACA Numbering Advisory Committee, the ACA Emergency Services Advisory Committee (ESAC), the ACA Communications Technical Regulation Advisory Committee (CTRAC), and the ACA Australian User Standards Telecommunications Advisory group (AUSTAG). CTN holds positions on the Standards Australia Council Board, the ARPANSA Electromagnetic Radiation Reference Group, and the ACIF Consumer Advisory Council. CTN resources consumer representatives on the ACIF working committees that develop consumer-related industry codes, and liaises closely with the TIO. CTN participates in Ministerial inquiries and public policy reviews."

The telecommunications industry in Australia is large, steadily growing and constantly changing. The change results from technological development, the introduction of new services, greater experience of competition, and the continual development of government and self-regulation initiatives. This results in an extraordinary number of issues that are relevant to consumers and which require the attention of CTN. With just $245,000 from the Commonwealth Government (2002-03), CTN has a huge challenge to keep across complex issues and make informed contributions on behalf of consumers. Current issues on which CTN represents residential consumers include: Competition in Telecommunications; Universal Service Obligations; Self Regulation and Codes of Practice; Consumer Protection; Choice of Service Provider; Accountability, Compliance & Enforcement; Privatisation of Telstra; Privacy; New Communications Technologies; Digital Divide; Internet Security; Access to Online Services; Faster Data Capacity; Customer Service Guarantee; Affordability, Pricing & Billing; Rural and Remote Access; Emergency Services; Quality of Service; Call Centres and Telephone Queuing; Pre-paid Services; Short Message Services; Electromagnetic Radiation; Mobile Services; National Numbering Plan; Number Portability; Complaints Handling & Faults; Directory Assistance Services; Phone Number Databases; Customer Information; Prices, Terms & Conditions; Selling Practices; Access for People with Disabilities; and Equipment Standards Setting.

4.2.2 Telecommunications and Disability Consumer Representation

The TEDICORE project commenced in 1998 when Blind Citizens Australia received a grant under Section 593 of the Telecommunications Act 1997 of $100,000 to carry out a one-year project to represent the interests of consumers with disabilities. The project is resourced by a specialist project officer and supported by a cross-disability advisory body. The TEDICORE partner organisations are:

  • Australian Association of the Deaf;
  • Blind Citizens Australia;
  • Communication Aid Users Society;
  • Deafness Forum Limited;
  • Physical Disability Council of Australia; and
  • Women with Disabilities Australia.

The TEDICORE objectives are:

  • Provide a forum for the discussion of telecommunications matters that are of common interest to telecommunications consumers with a disability;
  • Represent disabled consumer interests in the development of government and industry policy in relation to telecommunications; and
  • Focus the attention of consumer bodies, the public, government and industry on telecommunications issues affecting disabled consumers.

TEDICORE was the first disability-specific telecommunications project in Australia, so there was a lot of work ahead of the group. A good overview of the purposes and achievements of TEDICORE is given by Astbrink and Newell (2002b). TEDICORE has remained focused and results-oriented, and has made a substantial impact on behalf of consumers with disabilities. Nonetheless, a great deal of work remains outstanding, as new technologies and new services raise new issues that require attention. Major issues for TEDICORE have included:

  • Technical compliance for specially developed disability equipment (refer to Section;
  • ACIF guidelines for inclusive codes and standards (refer to Section;
  • ATIA disability-industry partnership (refer to Section;
  • Accessible e-commerce for persons with disabilities and older Australians (refer to Section;
  • Telecommunications disability standard (refer to Section 4.3.6;
  • Best practice in telecommunications for people with disabilities (refer to Section; and
  • Disability Equipment Program (refer to Section 4.3.3). Technical Compliance for Specially Developed Disability Equipment

TEDICORE wrote to the ACA in 1998 and provided a background paper concerning the compliance regime which it considered was inappropriate for low-volume equipment designed to meet the needs of specific groups of consumers with disabilities. It stated:

  • The item, or the required modification to the item, is not inexpensive in itself;
  • Such equipment is generally imported into Australia in non-commercial quantities; and
  • Demonstrated technical compliance is impractical due to the current compliance process being too costly and taking too long for the developer.

The matter was referred by ACA to its Communications Technical Regulatory Advisory Committee (CTRAC), since it was recognised by ACA that significant issues had been raised. In July 1999 CTRAC established a Working Committee and, in March 2000, CTRAC endorsed the committee's report to revise the technical compliance requirements for specially developed customer equipment imported at the rate of less than fifty items per year.

Three years later, March 2003, the ACA issued Telecommunications Labelling (Customer Equipment and Customer Cabling) Amendment Notice (TLN) 2003 (No.1) made under s.407 of the Telecommunications Act 1997. The purpose of the notice was to formalise reduced compliance arrangements for suppliers of customer equipment (CE) that has a feature or features specifically designed to assist a person with a disability to access a service supplied over the analogue public switched telephone network.

The aim of the amendment is to minimise the compliance costs, and hence end user costs, for Disability Customer Equipment by the incorporation of a reduced compliance requirement into the TLN. In order for CE to be classed as disability customer equipment it must:

  • be intended for connection to the analogue public switched telephone network;
  • be supplied in quantities of not more than 50 items in a calendar year;
  • have a feature or features specifically designed to assist persons with disabilities access services supplied over the public switched telephone network; and
  • be recognised by a specified disability representative body as meeting the needs of a disabled person represented by that body.

Whilst this is a welcome development, the time taken (four years since the matter was first raised) has been frustrating to consumers working from such a small resource base. ACIF guidelines for inclusive codes and standards

TEDICORE made a major contribution to the drafting of guidelines for reference by ACIF Working Groups in the development of telecommunications codes and standards. The guidelines raise awareness of the telecommunications needs of persons with disabilities, and were based on the experiences and reflections of disability representatives resulting from their participation in the processes to develop ACIF codes and standards. Formally, the guidelines were developed by the ACIF DAB to assist ACIF and its Reference Panels and Working Committees to meet their responsibilities under the DDA 1992 and the TCPSS 1999, and to assist ACIF and its Reference Panels and Working Committees to provide equity in access to telecommunications for people with disabilities. The guidelines are available for download at http://www.acif.org.au/ACIF/files/G586_2001.pdf. ATIA disability-industry partnership

In 1999 TEDICORE, in partnership with the Australian Telecommunications Industry Association (ATIA) organised a seminar with product manufacturers, importers and disability advocates to discuss how progress could be made on meeting the equipment needs of people with disabilities. The outcome of the meeting was an action plan for partnership between TEDICORE and ATIA.

Since that time good co-operation has continued between representatives of TEDICORE and ATIA. ATIA started work to develop a website and online database to list products that meet the Section 380 telecommunications disability standard. The database would also list other fixed, cordless and mobile phone products that meet accessibility criteria separately developed by TEDICORE (refer to ATIA (2001)). These guidelines are based on international criteria and recommendations developed by CTN. Although the website and database may not proceed as originally intended, the development of the guidelines has been beneficial. Accessible ecommerce for persons with disabilities and older Australians

HREOC's inquiry into accessible ecommerce for persons with disabilities and older Australians was initiated by the Attorney General in 1999, following approaches from TEDICORE. The inquiry covered a great deal of ground and has led to some important developments. The report, together with a rich resource of related documents, is available from the HREOC website at http://www.hreoc.gov.au/disability_rights/inquiries/ecom/ecom.html.

The ecommerce inquiry identified accessible banking as an urgent need for people with a wide range of disabilities, and the final report has led to some important developments in the banking sector.

  • HREOC and the Australian Bankers Association (ABA) have jointly established a community wide forum, known as the Accessible ecommerce Forum, to promote partnerships between industry, Government and the community to address the recommendations of the report.
  • The ABA and three of the major banks have developed DDA Action Plans and lodged them with HREOC.
  • The ABA, in conjunction with HREOC and stakeholder representatives including the banks and disability organisations, has developed voluntary industry standards for:
    • Automated Teller Machines (ATMs);
    • Electronic Funds Transfer at the Point of Sale (EFTPOS);
    • Automated Telephone Banking; and
    • Internet Banking.

The accessible banking standards are available in a variety of formats from the ABA, and may be downloaded from its website at http://www.bankers.asn.au/ABA/adminpages/AdminViewAnArticle.asp?ArticleI....

The ABA has adopted a different approach from that which has normally applied for the development of accessibility standards or guidelines in Australia, in that it has developed a set of complementary standards rather than covering everything in the one document. This approach has much to commend it, in terms of: flexibility, making the development task manageable, and enabling updates to be incorporated into the standards. The very essence of voluntary rather than mandatory standards gives their development and packaging a freer form, but nonetheless this approach is worth considering where practical for the development of disability standards for other industries such as telecommunications, the Internet or broadcasting.

The ATM standard is interesting, because it may inform development of a disability access standard or guidelines for public payphones in Australia. ATM's and payphones are similar, in that they are both public terminals, one for banking and the other for voice/text telephony. Many of the access barriers faced by people with disabilities in using ATM or payphone terminals are the same, similar or comparable. The ATM accessibility standard covers: access and location; ATM operation; card swiping, insertion and withdrawal; ATM display; keypad; outputs; security and privacy; and installation, maintenance and operating instructions. Best practice in telecommunications for people with disabilities

Early in 2002 TEDICORE issued a major report on Best Practice in Telecommunications (refer to TEDICORE (2002) available at http://www.bca.org.au/tedicore/bestprac.htm). It embodies current policy priorities expressed through 24 recommendations. The report covers: accessibility, universal design, network services, additional equipment and services, the Internet, prices, consumer consultation, and promotion and information dissemination. It outlines best practice in telecommunications, enabling people with disabilities to gain equitable access to telecommunications products and services. It is concise, comprehensive and clearly written, articulating the collective knowledge and experience of people with disabilities as telecommunications consumers.

The TEDICORE Best Practice principles for Australia are based on the principles embodied in the Telecommunications Charter of COST219bis, a pan-European project on telecommunications for persons with disabilities, extending and adapting those principles to reflect the current Australian telecommunications regulatory and service environment. The TEDICORE Best Practice principles are worth restating in full.

P1: Telecommunications facilities and services are accessible to all.
P2: The needs of people with disabilities are taken into account in the design of any telecommunications equipment or service. Terminal equipment is designed for the widest possible market.
P3 Network services adequately support relevant special terminal functions so that all users experience equivalent end-to-end service.
P4: When mainstream products and services cannot be used, provision is made for people with a disability to access the telecommunications service by means of additional and/or alternative equipment and services.
P5: The Internet and related digital technologies are accessible, available and affordable by people with a disability.
P6: People with disabilities should, as far as possible, be able to use telecommunications services at prices equivalent to those without disabilities. Most of the additional costs of providing access to all should be met by dedicated funds or absorbed within general operating costs.
P7: Providers of telecommunications equipment and services and regulatory authorities consult regularly with people with disabilities about their access requirements and take appropriate action. Equally, organisations representing people with disabilities contribute their knowledge and expertise.
P8: Telecommunications products and services that improve and increase access for people with disabilities are actively advertised and promoted, with information also available in accessible formats.

4.2.3 Deaf Telecommunications Access and Networking

DTAN is a project of the Australian Association of the Deaf (AAD) since October 2001 with funding under Section 593 of the Telecommunications Act 1997. DTAN builds on the work done by AAD's Telecommunications Access Sub-committee since 1986. Its goals are:

  • National community consultation with the Deaf Community
  • Publish 3 research reports aimed at Government, industry and regulators
  • Disseminate 5 discussion papers aimed at the Deaf Community
  • Advocate for increased installations of TTY payphones
  • Address recommendations from the Deaf Australia Online Project

AAD employs a part time DTAN project officer, and already the project has had a major impact: to raise the profile of telecommunications access issues for the Deaf community, and to enable AAD to produce research and discussion papers. DTAN has recently addressed many issues, including the following:

  • Disability Equipment Programs (refer to Section 4.3);
  • National Relay Service (refer to Section 4.4);
  • Any-to-any text connectivity (refer to Section 4.5);
  • Mobile phones (refer to Section 4.7);
  • Video telephony; (refer to Section 4.8.1);
  • Accessible payphones (refer to Section 4.8.2); and
  • Emergency services (refer to Section 4.8.3);

DTAN research and discussion papers are available from the AAD website, http://www.aad.org.au, as PDF files. Word versions of the files are available from AAD by request.

4.3 Disability Equipment Programs

Both Telstra and Optus operate a Disability Equipment Program (DEP) to provide customers with disabilities with specialised or modified customer equipment to enable them to use the fixed line telephone network. Neither program caters for mobile telephony or Internet access. These programs are restricted to Telstra or Optus customers respectively, and Telstra has a substantially wider variety of equipment available, in particular catering much better to the needs of people with disabilities other than deafness. Other carriage service providers, such as AAPT and Primus, do not have their own programs, but in January Telstra wholesale announced arrangements whereby companies such as these could access disability equipment. Whilst these welcomed wholesale arrangements may address the availability of special equipment for customers of companies other than Telstra and Optus, they cannot of themselves guarantee that equipment will be made available to customers with disabilities at equitable rates.

Prior to 1995 Telstra provided a limited range of equipment to help people with disabilities use the telephone network, but this did not include the TTY terminal for Deaf people. In 1995 with the commencement of the NRS a limited equipment program (NRS-TEA) including TTY terminals was established, but access was restricted to people on low incomes. Telstra established a TTY Program in March 1996 (administered by ACE), as an outcome of the Scott complaint under the DDA. This TTY program co-existed alongside the government-funded NRS-TEA program and Telstra's long-established Disability Equipment Program. The requirement for TTYs to be issued by telecommunications companies received a legislative base through the Telecommunications Act 1997 and Regulations 1998, as Telstra became the Universal Service Provider and took management responsibility for the DEP. However the DEP was available only to Telstra customers; and in 2002 Optus established its own DEP, limited by comparison with the Telstra program.

The Telstra program is deemed to have worked well for Deaf and hearing/speech impaired people requiring non-voice alternatives, through the provision of TTY terminals; however, in other respects both programs are widely criticised by consumer advocates. CTN is concerned that the needs of some people with disabilities are not met by Telstra's DEP. Based on anecdotal evidence, CTN has identified a circle of frustration in those cases where special equipment is not available from Telstra. CTN contends: sometimes people complain that Telstra cannot provide the particular equipment they need since it is not on Telstra's list for modified telephone handsets or accessories under its DEP; people then take their complaint to the TIO, which cannot assist because such matters are considered as policy and therefore beyond the jurisdiction of the TIO; correspondence with the Minister normally ends up with the customer being referred back to Telstra. Meanwhile, the customer is denied equitable telecommunications access. DCITA states that its records do not support CTN's contention.

The Telecommunications (Equipment for the Disabled) regulations 1998 gave examples of the type of equipment that must be provided to enable people with disabilities to use the Standard Telephone Service to communicate effectively with the National Relay Service and with people who do not have disabilities. Consumer advocates complain that the examples are often interpreted as a prescriptive list, and are too limited: not allowing for new and improved products, and not taking account of new technology and new telecommunications services. In particular, the Telstra DEP and the Optus DEP both focus on equipment for use on the fixed line telephone network. Although the Standard Telephone Service as defined in the TCPSS Act 1999 is technology neutral, it's associated Universal Service Obligation refers to provision of a first phone, and therefore is deemed to refer in most instances to the fixed telephone network. Without case law to establish the contrary, Telstra and Optus are presumably satisfied that in confining their equipment programs to equipment to access the fixed telephone network they are meeting their statutory obligations. This is despite the rapid growth in mobile communications and their much greater prominence in everyday life since 1998. The Deafness Forum emphasised the need for mobile phone accessories required by people with hearing impairments to be available at subsidised rates, similar to needed accessories or modifications for fixed line telephone handsets.

Opinion is divided concerning whether Disability Equipment Programs should be extended to cover mobile phones and accessories that might be required by persons with disabilities. Such extension is naturally the strongly expressed wish of consumer advocates, whereas other stakeholders are concerned about the cost of extending the range of products in the absence of a clearly established legal obligation to do so. The legal basis for such extension would seem to be supported by advice contained in HREOC (2001b, although the only supporting case law seems to be the Scott case. HREOC (2001b) includes the following advice.

A. Provision of equipment as part of or in association with telecommunications service
1. Telecommunications service providers who provide customer equipment as part of or in association with their service (whether directly or through agents, partners, franchisees etc) are obliged to provide equipment which is accessible to and usable by people with disabilities - other than in cases where it can be demonstrated that this would involve unjustifiable hardship. This obligation was examined at length in the Commission's decisions in Scott v Telstra: available on line at http://scaleplus.law.gov.au/html/ddadec/0/95/0/DD000060.htm.
2. The Disability Discrimination Act requires accessibility of the services a service provider is in the business of providing, rather than requiring provision of new or different services which might better suit the needs of a customer with a disability. But, as found in the Scott v Telstra case, the particular equipment a service provider currently provides does not conclusively define the service for this purpose. In that case Telstra was held to be required to provide a TTY where required in place of its standard handset.
3. This obligation to provide accessible equipment is not restricted, in its terms or effect, to services presently comprised within the scope of the Standard Telephone Service and Universal Service Obligation provisions of the Telecommunications Act, or the specific provisions of that Act regarding disability access.
4. In particular, obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act include equipment provided in conjunction with mobile services as well as fixed line services. Mobile services were examined in some detail in the Commission's inquiry regarding access to mobile phone services by hearing aid users: see http://www.humanrights.gov.au/disability_rights/inquiries/MP_index/mp_in....
5. The obligation to make equipment accessible and usable includes ensuring that equipment is directly usable, so far as this can be achieved without unjustifiable hardship. If and to the extent that the equipment does not directly achieve accessible service, the DDA also requires ensuring compatibility with assistive devices used by people with disabilities to achieve access (again subject to the unjustifiable hardship limitation).
6. Accessibility obligations might in principle be met either by ensuring that all equipment provided as part of or in association with the service is accessible (so far as is possible without unjustifiable hardship); or by ensuring access to specialised equipment as required, or by a combination of these approaches.
7. To the extent that a specialised equipment approach is relied on (i. e. to the extent that disability access requirements are not met instead by a universal design approach to all equipment), service providers will need to take particular care to avoid discrimination by ensuring that people with disabilities have access to the same choices of services, and at the same prices, as other users; and also to ensure that discrimination does not occur in practice through people with disabilities not having effective access to accurate information on services or equipment available which would provide accessible service. ).

On the other hand, Telstra claims that extension of its DEP to include mobile phones and accessories required by people with disabilities would need a legal basis. Certainly, if such provision was to be mandated a legal basis would seem to be needed; but otherwise there seems to be no formal impediment to expanding the program voluntarily. Of course program expansion would have financial implications, but it would also have benefits to make mobile telecommunications more accessible to many people with disabilities. In communicating with this author, Telstra stated: "While it is possible that in some cases obligations may arise under the DDA in relation to accessibility of mobile services and mobile phones, the DDA does not establish any specific positive requirements for service providers. The DDA establishes certain unlawful behaviours, which must be tested on a case by case basis."

Recommendation 7: Expansion of current disability equipment programs

A) That the telecommunications legislation be examined, and modified if necessary, to ensure that mobile phone networks and future access networks are accessible to people with disabilities.
B) That the Telstra and Optus Disability Equipment Programs should be expanded to include mobile phones and required accessories at equitable rates.
C) That Vodafone and other CSPs offering mobile communications should provide DEP access to their customers at equitable rates, either by establishing their own programs or by wholesale arrangements with Telstra or Optus.

There is strong agreement among consumer advocates to recommend establishment of an independent, consumer-controlled and industry-funded DEP. DTAN (2002A) has compiled a list of requirements for the DEP, on behalf of Deaf people, which is consistent with the views of other organisations/projects: TEDICORE, ACE, Deafness Forum and CTN:

  • A National comprehensive DEP program including: program awareness, information, equipment choice, equipment provision, installation, training and ongoing support.
  • A wide choice of equipment to meet the needs of Deaf people;
  • Ability to hire equipment for long and/or short term use;
  • Must employ Deaf people to assist with providing services and be aware of Deaf issues;
  • Able to access any Carriage Service Provider (CSP) and choose a plan that suits Deaf person
  • Consumer controlled and managed.
  • Ongoing equipment training and installation to customers
  • Funded through Universal Service Obligations from all CSP's
  • Liaise closely with ACA, DCITA, ACIF and CSP's in terms of new equipment becoming available

TEDICORE states its vision for a reformed and unified DEP as:

An independent and consumer-based Telecommunications Disability Program will give people with disabilities the freedom of choice of carriage service provider and equip them with the hardware and/or software to equitably access the telecommunications network.

TEDICORE's priorities for the reformed DEP are similar to those of DTAN. They are set out in TEDICORE (2002).

  • The new Program will be consumer-focused and consumer managed.
  • Consumer experience will form the basis for equipment requirements, based on what people with disabilities need to be able to function well when using telecommunications services.
  • Equitable access to the Internet and to mobile telephony will be integral to the program, since these are now mainstream telecommunications infrastructures supporting services commonly used by individual and organisational customers.
  • The new program will be flexible to keep pace with and take advantage of new technology.
  • When specialised products are needed, these should be compatible with and easily connected to mainstream products.
  • The new Program will be based on well-established United Nations principles of social justice, and embodied in Australia's DDA.
  • The new Program will adopt the Telecommunications Charter of COST219bis (1999), as general principles for improving equity and access in telecommunications for people with disabilities.

The need for reform of the Telstra Equipment Program was raised by consumer advocates in 2001 and widely discussed. ACIF convened a forum to bring all stakeholders together, to discuss current and future issues concerning the provision of disability equipment. Following the ACIF forum HREOC, ACA and DCITA have reached agreement on what the DDA implies for the provision of access equipment for people with disabilities to use the standard telephone service. (Refer to Section 3.6, or to Appendix B of ACE (2002), or to Appendix 1 of TEDICORE (2002)).

Establishment of a reformed, updated and consolidated DEP may require changes to the TCPSS 1999. The prospect of legislative change does not negate the possibility of reform, but it does confirm the need for detailed investigation and thorough analysis of the propositions put by consumer advocates. In particular, a thorough economic analysis would be required, taking into account any hidden costs of current programs that Telstra and Optus may currently be absorbing.

One approach might be to establish a Disability Equipment Program in parallel with, or in conjunction with, the National Relay Service. A program established and operated in a similar manner to the NRS could meet the major concerns of consumer advocates. It might be: industry funded under the Universal Service Obligation, managed by the ACA, and publicly accountable by annual report from the ACA tabled in the Federal Parliament. It has the potential to work as a co-operative consumer-industry partnership. Finally, such a program would have the likelihood of being able to:

  • be flexible regarding the inclusion of new products;
  • embrace mobile telephony and Internet access, as well as fixed line access;
  • keep up to date with changing technologies, new services, and changing mainstream customer consumption patterns and expectations;
  • provide a comprehensive service to persons with disabilities regarding information, timely provision of equipment, training, maintenance and ongoing support;
  • meet the needs of households where there are persons with disabilities, but the carriage service subscriber does not have a disability; and
  • allow consumers the same flexibility in their choice of carriage services, whether they be fixed line, mobile or Internet services, as is available to the rest of the community and encouraged under Commonwealth competition policy.

Recommendation 8: Consolidated disability equipment program

That HREOC should meet with ACA and DCITA, and with representatives of consumers with disabilities and the telecommunications industry, to determine the most appropriate auspicing basis and operating arrangements for a consolidated telecommunications equipment program to secure equitable access by persons with disabilities to the full range of telecommunications services.

4.4 National Relay Service

The National Relay Service (NRS) enables people using TTY text telephones to communicate with those who do not. In essence, the service provides trained staff to translate between text and speech. The service was established in 1995, and since that time has been provided by Australian Communication Exchange (ACE) under contract to the Commonwealth Government. Its legislative base is Part 3 of the TCPSS Act 1999, and the contract with ACE for delivery of the NRS is managed on behalf of the commonwealth by the ACA. ACE has been the successful tenderer to provide the NRS. ACE is a community-based consumer-led non-profit organisation. The NRS provides people who are deaf, or who have a speech or hearing impairment with access to a standard telephone service. This telephone access is provided on terms, and in circumstances, that are comparable to those which other Australians have access to by way of the standard telephone service. Anyone may use the National Relay Service.

Although there is no restriction on who can use the NRS, callers wishing to make 190x or international calls are required to open an NRS account with ACE. The NRS is very flexible, operates all year round 24 hours a day; and accepts both overseas calls and reverse charge calls.

The NRS offers services with the following call configurations:

  • Text to Speech Relay (TSR): Enables a person who is Deaf or who has a speech/hearing impairment, and who uses a TTY or modem, to communicate directly by text to the relay service for communication with someone who speaks and hears normally.
  • Voice Carry Over (VCO): Enables people with hearing impairment to use their natural speech to communicate with a hearing person over the telephone and read the responses on a TTY.
  • VCO to VCO relay: Enables two people with a hearing impairment to both use natural speech to communicate with each other and read the responses from the other person on a TTY.
  • Hearing Carry Over (HCO): Enables people with a speech impairment to listen to the telephone conversation of another person and type their responses on a TTY.
  • Speech to Speech Relay (SSR): Enables people with speech impairment to have a two way conversation over the telephone.
    Text Emergency Call Service: Enables access to police, fire and ambulance via TTY or a computer with modem.

Since December 2000 the NRS has provided a Text Emergency Call Service (106 rather than 000). This is the emergency access service specified in Part 8 of the TCPSS Act 1999, in association with the standard telephone service. It enables people using TTY text telephones or modems to contact police, fire or ambulance in life threatening emergencies. These emergencies include serious accidents or injury requiring urgent attention, when a crime is in progress, or any other event where life or property is at risk. There is no charge for 106 calls, including calls made from a pay phone. The service operates for 24 hours per day, every day. It provides a direct relay between a text caller requiring an emergency service and the emergency service organisation (police, fire or ambulance). The Relay Officer establishes the type of emergency service required, and calls that service. The Relay Officer relays the call, as normal.

The Text Emergency Call Service provides equivalent access and reliability to the 000 emergency service offered to the general community via voice calls. The NRS operator identifies the telephone number from which the person is calling. This number lets the operator identify the name of the subscriber and the address associated with that telephone number. Using this address information, the NRS identifies and contacts the appropriate police, fire or ambulance contact number for that locality. The emergency service organisation then confirms the caller's location. Calls to the Text Emergency Call Service receive priority within the NRS, and calls are rerouted to an available operator if the NRS is engaged.

For the current year ACE is working to the quality of service targets listed below for the NRS.

  • No more than five calls per 100 into the NRS will receive a busy signal (quarterly average);
  • At least 90 per cent of calls will be answered by the NRS within ten seconds (quarterly average);
  • The level of complaints received by ACE, the Commonwealth or TIO, will be less than 2 per cent of the total successful calls through the NRS (quarterly average);
  • No more than five text emergency service calls per 1,000 into the NRS will receive a busy signal (quarterly average); and
  • At least 99 per cent of text emergency service calls will be answered by the NRS within ten seconds (quarterly average).

ACA's NRS performance report (ACA (2002b)) states that during 2001-02 ACE met four out of the five performance requirements, as set out in the National Relay Service Plan 2001-02 (ACA (2001)).

ACE did not always meet the performance target for call blockage, with blocked calls just over 5% in the September and March quarters, and under 5% in the December and June quarters. The target of 5% appears high; that is, one would expect a substantially lower proportion than 5% of calls to be blocked. The typical blocking probabilities for operator assisted services are 0. 01 or below. However, it should be observed that for the 106 NRS Emergency Service the grade of service was very good. For two of the quarters under review, 100% of calls to the 106 emergency service were successful.

ACE did not meet all of its targets for growing the service in the period under review. This may be attributed to: the increased availability of TTY's in business, government or community organisations; the increased use of SMS messaging; or the greater use of email. It should also be recalled that some Deaf people do not like to use the NRS on principle: they exercise their right to communicate directly where possible. With a higher penetration rate of TTYs in government and business offices, more Deaf people are able to bypass the NRS and communicate directly. Therefore, a reduction in call volume to the NRS almost certainly is not a reflection of the perceived quality of service provided by the NRS.

The National Relay Service is highly regarded in Australia, and ACE has clearly developed a great deal of technical expertise and empathy with consumers. ACE has been a regular contributor to telecommunications inquiries, raising important issues: any-to-any text connectivity, disability equipment programs, emergency access, and mobile access denied. These all need to be taken seriously and addressed in a time of: continuous technological change, rapid mobile phone and Internet growth, changing community expectations, and new service opportunities.

Besley (2000) recommended (R16) that a training program for users of teletypewriter (TTY) machines be incorporated into the National Relay Service (NRS). The government's response was that DCITA will consult with other organisations to assess the level of unmet demand for TTY training, and work with the NRS to fully incorporate training into the Service. The NRS would seem to be ideally placed to include TTY training and ongoing support as a part of its outreach service to the community of text telephone users. DCITA advises that this recommendation was implemented in 2002.

As manager of the NRS, ACE has carried out research to assess best practice approaches to service delivery, and to find ways of deploying the emerging technology to open up new service opportunities. ACE will soon complete its research on SMS relay. ACE has previously carried out research on speech to speech relay (McCaul (1997)) and on video communication and relay (McCaul (1997) and Spencer (2000)).

4.5 Any-to-any Text Connectivity

The challenge of any-to-any text connectivity has gained prominence during 2002, and in February 2003 the ACIF held a seminar to discuss a technical solution. ACIF has convened a working group representing industry, the ACA and consumer advocates to review options for interim solutions. As of May 2003 the working group has held two meetings, and good progress towards any-to-any text connectivity is anticipated.

Any-to-any voice connectivity is a well understood concept in telecommunications, that networks should be interoperable nationally and internationally, and that a subscriber using a fixed or mobile terminal should be able to communicate directly by voice with another subscriber anywhere in the world. Any-to-any voice connectivity is a hallmark of voice telephony in Australia, with the Universal Service Regime guaranteeing connectivity for all, and the well established interoperability between the fixed and mobile networks.

The growth of mobile telephony has not simply created more options for people to communicate, but has raised community expectations of being able to communicate for business or social purposes with anyone from anywhere at any time. But Deaf people, and people with hearing/speech impairments, who rely on text communication have been left behind; the TTY text telephones used in Australia will only operate over the fixed line analogue network, a network which is only slowly growing and which is diminishing in relative importance in supporting an expanding range of telecommunications services.

Text telephony is a mainstream technology and service, there's nothing special in terms of adaptation of the basic technology to take account of the specific disabilities of the people who use it most. It's simply that text telephony is of little interest to the vast majority of telephone users, people who can both speak and hear adequately. Text-based communication takes up to ten times as long and lacks the spontaneity of voice-based communication. Therefore, it is little wonder that international standards for text connectivity and text telephones themselves have lagged behind other communications standards and terminal equipment - their development has not been driven by widespread market demand.

Dingle (2003) gives a comprehensive review of the issues associated with text telephony, with a view to exploring options for text telephones in Australia. His detailed understanding of telecommunications technologies and his extensive experience in international telecommunications standards development enable him to paint the picture of text telephone global incompatibility and to point the way towards global interoperability. He describes the TTY used in Australia as a modern multimedia terminal which uses "an almost 'extinct' Baudot coding scheme and a non-standard 50bit/s modem." This description may seem harsh to the devotees of the TTY, which has been a liberation for the Deaf community, but nonetheless it is accurate and serves as a starting point for analysis and solution of the text communication dilemma.

The TTY in Australia uses the Baudot-50 standard. Baudot is an old 5-bit code which does not even distinguish between upper and lower case letters, which originated with telex terminals. Modems generally use the 7-bit ASCII code, also defined by the ITU-T T.50 recommendation. The transmission rate is 50bit/s. Dingle points out that the Australian TTY protocol is based on AS/NSZ 4277:1995, but few TTY's sold in Australia appear to meet this standard. Only a small number of other countries use the Baudot-50 standard, and the United States uses Baudot-45, with a transmission rate of 45.45bit/s rather than 50bit/s. These bit rates are incompatible with the minimum bit rates for most modems, 300 or 110 bit/s. The Australian TTY also uses unusual frequencies of 1400 and 1800 Hz, which causes a problem with GSM and CDMA transmission. In summary, therefore, the TTY used in Australia deploys an unusual character set, bit rate and modem frequencies.

The installed base of up to 15,000 TTY text telephones in Australia enables: telecommunication within the Deaf community; people who are deaf or hearing/speech impaired to communicate with businesses, government agencies and various organisations which have a TTY; and TTY users to communicate through the National Relay Service with the rest of the community. But the TTY does not currently work with a GSM or CDMA mobile phone, and cannot be used for international calls. TTY's do not work from behind the digital/analogue interface of many telephone systems used by large, medium and small organisations which have multiple incoming lines and internal extensions. Some universities in Australia are changing to VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) for their telephone systems, which will not accommodate Baudot-based TTY text telephones. Many retirement villages and nursing homes have PABX switchboards with a digital interface on the client side. This means that many residents who need text connectivity cannot use their TTY text phones. Finally, Telstra's proposal to use the CDMA-based Wireless Local Loop technology for so-called last-mile connectivity in remote areas has alarmed the Deaf community, since once again a TTY-incompatible technology is being deployed. This means that in both absolute and proportionate terms, the opportunities for using a TTY are diminishing.

The situation is emerging that a TTY can only be used by a residential subscriber, or by a business subscriber with a direct line which bypasses the switchboard. In particular, people who are deaf or hearing/speech impaired are further disadvantaged that their TTY will not work from the telephone in their hotel room or the standard phone socket in their office at work. A problem for text connectivity to digital switchboards is the variety of proprietary standards that companies use on the client side of the analogue-digital interface, making it difficult for text telephone manufacturers to design a universal interface.

Dingle (2003) proposes consideration of the development of a 'next generation' text telephone specification for implementation in Australia, together with an interworking specification for backward compatibility with the TTY and text telephones used in other countries. Where experts seem to differ is on the question of whether the Baudot-based TTY should be retained indefinitely in Australia, or be phased out according to an industry-wide replacement program in favour of a text telephone with a modern flexible interface and multimedia capability. These specifications could be drawn up by ACIF under part 6 of the Telecommunications Act 1997 covering Industry codes and Industry Standards. The ACA could accredit the specifications as Industry Codes of Practice, whereupon compliance is voluntary; or direct that they be accredited as Industry Standards, in which case compliance is mandatory. In this case, where the emphasis is on standardisation and technical compatibility for interworking, recognition as an Industry Code seems appropriate. Such specifications could replace AS/NZS 4277:1995 "Text telecommunications - User interface requirements - for Deaf people and people with hearing and speech disabilities".

Different standards for text telephones are used around the world, and in some countries multiple standards are used. They include: Baudot-50, Baudot-45, V.21, V.23, Bell-103 and EDT (European Deaf Telephone). The details are not important; we can simply observe that they are largely incompatible, and that their text telephones will perform differently in fixed, mobile, analogue or digital environments. For one thing: most text telephone protocols do not work over the GSM or CDMA digital mobile networks. In short, there is no off the shelf solution that any country can adopt, irrespective of the size and type of its installed base of text telephones. The telecommunications technology and community expectations have raced ahead of the text telephone technology; after all, text telephony is largely driven by a rights-based desire for Deaf people to communicate, rather than an economic imperative to gain market advantage.

One problem is that although some text telephones can work with different protocols, they are generally not automatically switchable and need to be changed manually. Almost 90% of TTYs in Australia, for example, can use the American Baudot-45 protocol; but the user needs to make the change manually, which is unreliable in the context of an incoming call. Apart from their limited modem interface, most TTYs used in Australia are sophisticated text terminals. Users can alternate between text and voice communication, and they generally support VCO and HCO (voice and hearing carry over).

The longer-term solution lies in the development of and adherence to an inclusive and flexible international standard for interworking. A suite of standards, rather than one single comprehensive multimedia specification, is needed, to underpin multimedia communication including text connectivity starting with full duplex text/voice conversations. Of course the starting point for such standards is the ITU-T, and good progress has already been made.

The V.18 text telephony interworking recommendation describes the V.21, V.23, EDT and Baudot standards, and provides interworking between eight different text telephone protocols (six of which are commonly used in Europe). It has an auto-detection feature for the different protocols, meaning that a V.18 modem will identify the modem of the other party and will adjust to its specific protocol. The V.18 recommendation defines a new text telephony protocol which is based on the V.21 and T.140 recommendations. It defines testing regimes for modem compatibility, and enables the use of technologies for simultaneous voice and text. V.18 modems are becoming available in the United Kingdom, Italy and some other countries, but they do not yet seem to be readily available in Australia.

The FCC in the United States has mandated that Baudot-45 users must have access to emergency services over the CDMA and GSM networks. The CDMA implementation seems to apply only for Baudot-45, whereas the GSM solution is more flexible and includes Baudot-50. The problem for TTY's over the mobile network is that the higher frequencies of the modems tones are attenuated; as a result of which, after the data is compressed, encrypted, transmitted and reconstituted it is full of errors.

Ericsson has developed a Cellular Text Modem (CTM) for use over the GSM network. It takes the dual tones (1400Hz and 1800Hz) and translates them to a four-tone set (400Hz, 600Hz, 800Hz and 1000Hz), enabling the acoustic signals to be faithfully transmitted over the cellular network. A user with a TTY and CTM could communicate with another user with the same equipment, but could not communicate with someone using an unenhanced TTY. For this broader communication each GSM base station must have an interworking capability to translate between the four-tone CTM set and the two-tone TTY set. The 3G specifications provide for a four-tone CTM and will accommodate VCO and HCO, so the 3G handsets should have flexible text connectivity built in.

V.18 specifies a 4-tone set of acoustical signals: 980Hz, 1180Hz, 1650Hz and 1850Hz. It seems that V.18 is not compatible with GSM or CDMA, since the highest tone will be attenuated. However, work is in progress to extend the V.18 recommendation for GSM and CDMA compatibility, essentially mapping the V.18 4-tone set to a compatible 4-tone set such as the one used by the Sony Ericsson Textlink 9100m CTM.

In 1998 ITU-T study group 16 completed work on three complementary recommendations which make communication easier for people who are deaf or hearing/speech impaired. ITU-T is the Telecommunications Standardisation Sector of the International Telecommunications Union. The ITU-T has many study groups that develop complementary recommendations on all aspects of telecommunications networks and services, with the objective of ensuring interoperability between networks carrying voice, data and video traffic. The three recommendations, referred to below, are described in more detail in Hellström (1998a) at http://www.omnitor.se/english/standards/ITU-Tq9-16/Q9-16article.doc.

  • V.18 describes a multi-function text telephone which can communicate with the wide variety of text telephones in use today.
  • T.140 adds new facilities which allow text communication using a very wide variety of alphabets such as Arabic, Cyrillic, kanji, etc. , as well as Latin-based characters.
  • T.134 describes how these facilities are used in the multi-media communications systems defined by the ITU-T.

Experts in Australia differ on the relevance for Australia of implementation of an interworking standard such as V.18. One school of thought asserts that since practically everyone uses the TTY then there is no incompatibility problem. This seems to overlook the reality that the TTY can no longer do the job alone, being confined to direct access over the fixed line analogue network in Australia. Another school of thought asserts that the TTY with its Baudot-50 interface simply cannot do the job to support text connectivity over a variety of network interfaces including international calls, and that the key to the solution is an interworking standard that includes Baudot-50. The problem is how to achieve any-to-any text connectivity in Australia. There appear to be two directions for the solution to this problem, according to the school of thought to which one subscribes.

1) Achieve TTY compatibility to send and receive calls: over the cellular mobile network, from behind the digital-analogue interfaces of commonly used business systems, and internationally. One way to achieve this would be to construct a black box unit that sits between the TTY and the network, translating the audible tones as required. This might be the neatest solution technically, but it would mean that TTY users were required to carry with them an extra physical device.
2) Specify a new text telephone modem that will: interwork with the TTY, operate over the cellular networks, Operate over the fixed line network from behind analogue-digital interfaces, and support international calls.

Whatever the prevailing school of thought, an industry code to update AS/NZS 4277:1995, The current Australian standard for text telephones seems warranted. A new industry code for text telephony should allow for the continued use of TTYs over the fixed telephone network, whilst fostering the use of intelligent modems that support Other text communication standards on multiple telecommunications platforms.

Recommendation 9: Industry code on text telephony

That HREOC should encourage ACIF to draft an Industry Code supporting any-to-any text connectivity in Australia, and provide advice to ACIF to ensure that the Code is comprehensive in addressing the specific needs of persons who are Deaf or who have other disabilities including people who use VCO or HCO and people who are deafblind using Braille. The Code would allow retention of current TTY or other text telephones, whilst fostering the development of new text telephones using flexible modems.

Work has continued in ITU-T Study Group 16 to develop other recommendations which support multimedia communication. The concept is known as 'total conversation', and is described in Hellström (2002) in a PowerPoint presentation available for download at http://w3c.sics.se/events/20021029-wai/anders-hedin.ppt. Text conversation, and voice conversation, are one-dimensional subsets of total conversation. Total conversation is the simultaneous dual carriage of voice, video and text, enabling the parties to communicate with full flexibility in a multimedia environment.

Prospects are brighter for text connectivity with 3G mobile communications. The 3rd Generation Project Partnership (3GPP) is developing specifications for Global Text Telephony (GTT) across mobile and fixed networks using both circuit and packet switching. This is expected to result in flexible text-based connectivity being built into 3G mobile phones.

Back to the situation for People with hearing/speech disabilities and Deaf people in Australia who need text-based telephony: their much-loved Baudot-50 TTY terminals do not currently work with the GSM and CDMA cellular networks, they do not work for overseas calls, they do not work with the Wireless Local Loop, and they do not work from behind analogue-digital switchboard interfaces. That is, the workability of TTYs is contracting as technology advances. The Communications Hub described in Bytheway (2003) recognises:

  • that the TTY used in Australia works well over the analogue fix line network and that both will be around for many years to come;
  • that new modems are needed for TTY text phones to work over the mobile networks and from behind digital switchboards;
  • that the V.18 recommendation harmonises the various legacy text phone modem protocols very well; and
  • that relay through the NRS for text-voice connectivity in Australia has worked well.

Bytheway (2003) recounts the history of text telephones used by Deaf people. Their use began in the United States as Deaf people observed that teletypewriters discarded by offices could be made to work for text-based communication over the telephone network. Similar developments occurred in other countries, but the communication protocols (line speed and character codes) diverged. This denied interoperability, akin to the aftermath of the 'tower of Babel'. The TTY used in Australia has a line speed of 50 bit/s, enough to handle the typing speed of most users, and the analogue-based customer access network has remained stable. So, apart from the lack of international interoperability, there has been no need for a TTY upgrade. But 2000 marked a change with the closure of the AMPS mobile network which locked out Deaf people and people with hearing/speech impairments from mobile communication.

With the region of usability of the TTY diminishing, as incompatible telecommunications technologies are deployed, one might ask whether the remedy in the Scott v. Telstra case that brought text connectivity to Deaf people should be revisited and updated. It would be a pity, for example, if the wording of the remedy in this case, written in a technology environment of eight years ago, was inadvertently restrictive - having regarding to the Objects of the DDA, reasonable community expectations, and the cost to the telecommunications industry of the remedy. It should be noted that the Baudot-50 TTY now only works on a portion of Australia's multi-modal telecommunications network. Of course there is no formal barrier to prevent parties in DDA cases such as the Scott case from mutually agreeing to revisit the terms of settlement; but one can anticipate in this case a large power/resources imbalance between the parties that prompts support for an independent party to initiate communication between the parties and facilitate ongoing discussion that might result. An important element of HREOC's administration of the DDA, similar to the TIO's handling of telecommunications complaints, is to take steps to reduce the power imbalance between complainant and respondent, in order that matters are more readily considered on their merits. Commissioner Wilson, in HREOC (1995b), foreshadowed that a review of the remedies might be appropriate. He stated: "(g) The parties shall have liberty to apply to the Commission for amending orders or for further or other orders as the circumstances require."

Recommendation 10: Scott v. Telstra remedy review

That HREOC should consider whether to initiate discussions between the parties in the Scott v. Telstra and related complaints concerning the appropriateness of the remedy to give Deaf people TTY-based text connectivity; having regard to new telecommunications technologies and networks, increased community expectations for anywhere, any time and anyone telecommunications, and the limited technical capability of the Baudot-50 TTY modem.

DCITA believes that technological progress is likely to lead to a solution for TTY text connectivity using mobile phones. In recent months the ACA has commenced research to find a solution to the problem of text communication over the mobile telephone network. ACA is exploring future trends and innovations in telecommunications that will give people with disabilities who rely on text communication access to the 106 text emergency call service on their mobile phones. According to the ACA, preliminary results have been encouraging, and the ACA anticipates that its research will be completed by the end of June 2003. Remaining questions involve the feasibility and speed at which outcomes of the research could be implemented, as well as management of the associated costs.

Recommendation 11: Mobile text telephony research and development

That HREOC, as a matter of urgency, in consultation with DCITA and the ACA, should encourage research and development in Australia to enable TTYs and other text telephones to work over the GSM and CDMA networks. Research must include user testing as an integral component, to ensure that outcomes are user friendly as well as technically sound.

Bytheway (2003) goes on to describe the evolving text-based communication options resulting from technological change: fixed line text conversations, mobile to mobile and mobile to fixed line text communication, Internet chat, Internet to TTY connectivity, video relay and finally mobile video telephony. His basic contention is that interoperability and backwards compatibility can most readily be achieved by means of a communications hub using computer or human relays, to connect parties using different text communication protocols (Baudot, ASCII, etc. ) or different media (text, voice or video). The arguments presented for a Communications Hub are logical and persuasive. Using the NRS as the Communications Hub seems logical, so therefore NRS capacity should be developed to allow a phased implementation of the model. These steps seem appropriate:

  • Upgrade text terminals at the NRS to have V.18 and CTM modems;
  • Install V.18 and CTM modems at the NRS and appropriate software to give functionality as a relay server to link otherwise incompatible text telephones;
  • Upgrade workstations at the NRS to allow operators to receive/send Internet text chat calls and connect by text/voice with the regular telephone network; and
  • Introduce video relay for people with video telephony terminals.

Recommendation 12: Communications hub implementation - first stage

That an upgrade of NRS hardware and software based on V.18 and CTM text modems should be encouraged by appropriate funding arrangements, to enable the NRS to facilitate interworking between otherwise incompatible text telephone protocols.

4.6 Telecommunications Disability Standard

A fundamental approach to improve the accessibility of persons with disabilities to telecommunications services and equipment is the development and adoption of comprehensive disability access standards, with Section 380 of the Telecommunications Act 1997 as a starting point. In Australia the progress has been tentative, to say the least! Following the enactment of the Telecommunications Act 1997 all telecommunications standards in force at the time were voided, and had to be resubmitted for their formal recognition as standards under the Act. The process has been that ACIF develops standards, as a body accredited with Standards Australia to make technical standards, and these may then be ratified by the Australian Communications Authority and notified in the Commonwealth Gazette - whereupon they become mandatory. The ACA also has a reserve power to make standards, where it deems it necessary to do so.

As noted previously in Section 3.3, Section 380 of the Telecommunications Act 1997 provides for the making of disability access standards, with reference to the DDA as the overarching legislation in Australia concerning the rights of persons with disabilities. Prior to 1997 there was a telecommunications disability standard with two requirements, which were both referenced as examples in Section 380: an induction loop to assist people using hearing aids, and a raised dot on the number 5 on the telephone keypad to help blind people.

The drafting work for the new standard was completed in 1999, awaiting formal ratification by ACA and gazettal. The draft standard maintained the status quo, with just the two features retained, and consumer advocates understood that work would commence on a more comprehensive standard in line with trends in other countries. Progress has since been difficult and slow, and no further work was carried out until the CTRAC advisory sub-committee was convened during the second half of 2002.

In February 2002 the ACA agreed to the making of: Telecommunications Disability Standard (Requirements for Customer Equipment for use with the Standard Telephone Service - Features for special needs of persons with disabilities - AS/ACIF S040) 2002, known also as AS/ACIF S040:2001.

In making this first telecommunications disability standard ACA shared the widespread disappointment of consumer advocates over: the extremely limited content of the standard; industry's slow progress in developing the standard; and the apparent lack of awareness and recognition of international trends concerning features on telecommunications equipment for access by people with disabilities. The ACA requested that its Communications Technical Regulation Advisory Committee (CTRAC) advise the ACA on issues that deserve further consideration for potential inclusion in a telecommunications disability standard or adoption as industry guidelines; and that CTRAC provide advice on compliance arrangements for disability standards, having regard to the fact that Section 407 of the Telecommunications Act 1997 does not apply to disability standards made under Section 380 and that there is no alternative compliance regime. CTRAC established a sub-committee on disability standards, which carried out important work on the scope of a disability standard for accessible telecommunications in Australia. It reported back to the CTRAC meeting held in March 2003.

In developing the standard ACIF had taken note of CTN (1997), a report of the Consumers' Telecommunications Network commissioned by the ACA, which included 47 recommendations as to matters to be included in technical standards for disability access. However, only the two features referenced in Section 380 as examples were included in the new telecommunications disability standard, even though the issues raised by the CTN recommendations were consistent with the underlying philosophy of the approach taken in the European Union and the United States to providing access to telecommunications by people with disabilities.

In March 2003 CTRAC decided to recommend to ACA that guidelines should be developed rather than a more comprehensive telecommunications disability standard. CTRAC had before it a well researched document that could form the basis of a disability standard covering: fixed line phones, cordless phones, mobile phones and payphones. The document was based on extensive research including, but not limited to, guidelines and features documented in CTN (1997), ATIA (2001), and Gill and Shipley (1999). ATIA (2001), for example, considers nine aspects of telephones: whole telephone, handset, sound, keys, keypad, control buttons, special functions, display and other visual indications, and accessories.

In disability/industry forums it is commonly the case that tension exists as to whether accessibility requirements and features should be embodied in mandatory standards, in voluntary guidelines, or in some other way. In general terms consumer advocates prefer standards, and industry representatives prefer guidelines; but in the real world, industry by industry and country by country, this demarcation is not so clear and resolution of the standards/guidelines dichotomy is often controversial.

Section 380 of the Telecommunications Act 1997 allows for the making of a disability access standard in respect of customer equipment to access the standard telephone service. There is no compliance mechanism since Section 407 applies only to Section 376 standards. To set up a compliance mechanism would require amendments to the Act. Section 383 states that compliance with a Section 380 standard must be taken into account in assessing a complaint of discrimination under the DDA, but compliance is not deemed to be a complete defence.

Consumer advocates strongly favour an enhanced Section 380 telecommunications disability standard, because:

  • It will result in an agreed baseline of accessibility for the standard telephone service;
  • It will encourage the development and marketing of accessible telephones based on inclusive design principles (refer to CUD (1997)) with flexible features;
  • It will reduce the dependency of many people with disabilities on disability equipment programs which provide modified telephones or special accessories, and will therefore increase consumer choice among CSPs rather than perpetuate the anti-competitive situation which exists today; and
  • It will avoid the dumping of legacy telephones in Australia, unwanted in other countries because they lack the basic features of inclusive and ergonomic design.

Some industry representatives oppose an enhanced Section 380 telecommunications disability standard, because:

  • They do not like further regulation, preferring to take guidance from consumer preferences expressed through market trends; and
  • They are concerned that as a net importer of customer equipment the Australian telecommunications industry will face limited product choice and higher product costs.

On the other hand, consumer advocates sometimes do not want standards whereas industry representatives welcome them.

  • Some consumer advocates have argued that DDA Disability Standards that result from a process of negotiation bargain away the rights of people with disabilities to seek redress under the law, and can entrench practices that would otherwise be deemed discriminatory. This argument has some weight in terms of the power imbalance that occurs in the bargaining process. All disability standards processes under the DDA have been long and complex, and disability advocates have seen their hopes and dreams for a more inclusive society through a specific DDA disability standard gradually whittled away
  • Some industry representatives supported the development of transport and premises standards under the DDA because they provide certainty and a higher level of immunity against complaints. Especially, a phased implementation for accessible conveyances has enabled the transport industry to incorporate the requirements of the DDA Transport standard into ongoing procurement programs.

It may be possible to develop a disability standard under Section 31 of the DDA. However, as described in Section 3.2.5, this would first require amendment of the Act since the DDA allows the making of standards only in specified areas, and telecommunications is not currently included. Even if the DDA allowed for a disability standard on telecommunications, there are strong grounds to believe that this would not be the best way to proceed. DDA standards: are subject to a rigorous regulatory impact cost/benefit analysis, must be approved by the Federal Parliament, do not have recourse to an in-built compliance mechanism under the Act, and would require Parliamentary approval for amendment due to the impact of technological change or for any other reason. Of course any disability standard should be subject to both rigorous, prior analysis and government approval; however, the nature of a telecommunications equipment standard does not sit well with the form of DDA standards, and Parliamentary approval of amendments seems cumbersome. There is a well-established procedure under the Telecommunications Act 1997 to support the making and amendment of technical standards.

The HREOC advisory note on telecommunications, summarised in Section 3.6 and viewable at http://www.hreoc.gov.au/disability_rights/communications/equipment.htm, considers three cases.

A) Provision of equipment as part of or in association with telecommunications service: CSPs that provide customer equipment to use their telecommunications service are obliged to make accessibility equipment available. This was confirmed in the Scott v. Telstra case available at http://scaleplus.law.gov.au/html/ddadec/0/95/0/DD000060.htm. This obligation is subject to unjustifiable hardship for the supplier, but goes beyond the standard telephone service and universal service obligation to include mobile phones.

B) Equipment not provided as part of a service: This situation is not so clear. On the face of it, suppliers do not have to supply accessible equipment if it is outside their normal product range. However, it is possible that some barriers to access which might be thought to be part of the goods or equipment may be found instead to be incidental conditions or requirements for access or use of the equipment, and thus be capable of being found to involve unlawful discrimination. Uncertainty in this area, and the possibility of different interpretation for telecommunications equipment according to which company supplies it, suggests that the development of industry or regulatory standards may be beneficial, rather than waiting on the outcome of possible DDA complaints.

C) Service providers which do not provide any customer equipment: Such organisations do not have a liability under the DDA to provide accessible customer equipment.

Telstra disagrees with HREOC's explanation of the law. With reference to A) above, Telstra has stated: "This statement is only correct to the extent that a failure to provide such equipment would satisfy the requirements of section 24 (including section 5 or 6) of the DDA." Telstra suggested wording, as follows: "CSP's that provide customer equipment to use their telecommunications service are obliged to make accessibility equipment available, to the extent that a failure to provide such equipment would contravene section 24 of the DDA. This was confirmed in the Scott v. Telstra case available at http://scaleplus.law.gov.au/html/ddadec/0/95/0/DD000060.htm." Clearly, there appears to be a difference of opinion between HREOC and Telstra, resolution of which is beyond the scope of this discussion paper.

Carriage service providers which supply customer equipment in association with their services could develop and implement action plans towards making accessible customer equipment available upon request for persons with disabilities, and could seek a Temporary Exemption from the DDA. If granted, this would make them immune to DDA complaints whilst their customer equipment was being updated. The ATIA (2001) guidelines, developed by the Disability-Industry Partnership convened by the Australian Telecommunications Industry Association, might serve as the benchmark against which the accessibility of customer equipment could be assessed.

When the Telecommunications Act 1997 was drafted, the provision for disability access standards was included. Presumably, this was because the government believed that such standards would be beneficial: confirming the right of people with disabilities to accessible telecommunications, and providing a desired level of certainty for equipment suppliers. Therefore, it does not seem healthy at this early stage to revisit the debate on the efficacy of disability access standards. In briefing CTRAC during 2002, the ACA made it quite clear that the disability standard AS/ACIF S040:2001 was inappropriately limited in scope having regard to community expectations and overseas trends.

A Section 380 telecommunications disability standard would be beneficial to consumers, since it would ensure that accessible telephones were widely available. Even if a disability standard is limited in scope, like the present standard AS/ACIF S040:2001 with just two accessibility features, it is better than nothing. This is provided that it cannot be called as a complete defense in a complaint of discrimination under the DDA. On the other hand, guidelines have no legal standing: voluntary guidelines have no force, so their benefit is confined to awareness-raising and information about good practice.

Recommendation 13: Telecommunications disability standard

That HREOC should consider providing advice to the ACA on the benefits, for both the telecommunications industry and consumers with disabilities, of a more comprehensive Section 380 telecommunications disability standard to replace S040:2001; and, if work begins, provide advice on the text of a disability standard that would maximise certainty for the telecommunications industry in meeting DDA obligations to minimise discrimination.

Irrespective of the scope of a telecommunications disability standard there needs to be a compliance regime underpinned by the Telecommunications Act 1997. An approach which seems feasible is for the government to amend Section 407 to cover Section 380 standards, and then for the ACA to develop the compliance regime. An equipment labelling scheme would give both retailers and consumers assurance that the telephone, or other equipment embodying a telephone, complies with the disability standard.

Recommendation 14: Section 407 amendment

That the ACA and DCITA should give consideration to advising the government that Section 407 of the Telecommunications Act 1997 should be amended to facilitate the development by ACA of a compliance regime for telecommunications disability standards made under Section 380 of the Act.

The CTRAC sub-committee on disability standards identified overarching principles, mandatory features and optional features for a new disability standard in telecommunications, applicable to: fixed line phones, cordless phones, mobile phones and payphones.

Whether it is decided to develop a disability standard under Section 380 of the Telecommunications Act, an industry code or industry standard under Part 6 of the Act, or equipment guidelines, it is highly desirable that the specification is consistent with the DDA. The specification should provide the maximum possible level of certainty to consumers with disabilities about their rights, and to equipment providers about their responsibilities. That is, the specification should be sufficiently strong and comprehensive that demonstrated compliance by an organisation would be a strong defense against a DDA complaint.

As previously stated in Section 3.2, the DDA is the Commonwealth law which seeks to eliminate discrimination as far as possible against people with disabilities. It tries to balance the rights of people with disabilities against the responsibilities of organisations providing goods, services and facilities. It requires that reasonable adjustments be made to assist people with disabilities where necessary, provided that this does not constitute an unjustifiable hardship. Therefore, the DDA would seem to be the benchmark for determining what should be specified to achieve accessible telecommunications for persons with disabilities. Adoption of a sufficiently strong specification on accessible equipment by a carriage service provider, and an action plan to implement it, could be used to support an application for a temporary exemption under the DDA.

Recommendation 15: Any proposed specification being consistent with the DDA

That HREOC should consider providing advice to ACA on the preferred form and scope of any proposed accessible customer equipment specification, such that its content would meet the minimum requirements of a disability standard under the DDA. That is, the specification would increase certainty by clearly setting out the rights of individuals and the responsibilities of organisations under the DDA. Adoption of the specification, and development of an action plan for its compliance, might then enable a carriage service provider or equipment supplier to seek a Temporary Exemption under the DDA.

4.7 Mobile Phones

4.7.1 Hearing Aid Interference

The GSM mobile telephony technology was introduced into Australia in 1992, without regard to the extent of the interference caused to many people using hearing aids. The size of the problem was not recognised until some years later, when the GSM system grew rapidly and cases of interference became widely recorded, both in Australia and overseas.

During July 1999 a group of people with hearing impairments lodged a DDA complaint, alleging unlawful discrimination in that the complainants had great difficulty in using GSM digital mobile phone services. Electromagnetic fields generated by many digital mobile phones interfere with hearing aids to such an extent that hearing aid wearers cannot use those mobile phones. Hearing impaired users of mobile phones faced restrictions on their capacity to access the same mobile telephone service that the community as a whole was using. In 1999 the AMPS network was being closed, and the CDMA network was just being established, thus mobile phone users had little choice but GSM.

HREOC decided to handle the complaint by holding a public inquiry into the extent of incompatibility between mobile phone technologies and commonly used hearing aids, with a view to settling the complaint through agreement on specific actions by the telecommunications industry. HREOC (2001) reports on the inquiry. It provides detailed background, clarification of rights and responsibilities, analysis and findings.

HREOC (2001) states that hearing aid manufacturers and retailers have the same obligations under the DDA and the Trade Practices Act as do mobile phone manufacturers and retailers. That is, they must describe their goods properly, give reasonable warrant that the goods are suitable for the customers purpose and make the goods available in a manner that does not discriminate unlawfully. This means providing information to consumers about the compatibility of hearing aids and mobile phones whether by way of labelling or otherwise.

There were two elements to the complaint: complaint against manufacturers and complaint against service providers. The inquiry recommended that the complaint against manufacturers should be closed, because it could not readily be sustained; and that the complaint against service providers should be conciliated.

There were two components to effective conciliation of the complaint against service providers: Firstly, to remedy the situation of hearing aid users with GSM phones who cannot use them and were locked into contracts; and secondly, to make sure that the same problem does not arise again. The Inquiry reviewed three options and favoured an approach that would both address systemic issues and recognise existing consumer rights. It recommended that service providers sign an Industry Code, and also negotiate remedies for people who wear hearing aids and who entered contracts for GSM services that they could not use effectively. The kernel of the solution was to transfer GSM customers suffering hearing aid incompatibility problems over to the CDMA network, and for the telephone service providers to sort out the interworking arrangements. However, this solution did not solve the problem for everyone, since some incompatibility remains; and a deadlock would have resulted if the CDMA technology was not on hand to save the day.

The solution relied on the findings of an Australian Hearing research project. It found that most hearing aid users, who can use a normal telephone or analogue mobile phone, can use a CDMA digital mobile phone. They do not need to use accessories, such as hands free kits, or neck loops under most situations encountered in day to day activities. HREOC strongly endorsed the following recommendation from Australian Hearing, and it bears repeating in full.

It is recommended that hearing aid users test the CDMA mobile phone technology with their hearing aid before finalising any purchase agreement. CDMA mobile displays indicate whether the area has strong or weak reception. Typically four or five bars are used to indicate strong reception and one bar is used to indicate weak reception. Hearing aids are more prone to experience interference in weak reception areas. Move towards the centre of the building to seek out a weak reception area and dial a known phone number to test the mobile. It may be necessary to move out of the store to find a weak reception area. Under these conditions if interference is not perceived, or is just perceptible, then the hearing aid will be compatible with the CDMA mobile phone. If interference is perceived as being annoying then an accessory may be required to create some distance between the hearing aid and mobile phone.

Since most hearing aid users can use CDMA mobile phones, and since Telstra's CDMA network is Australia's largest terrestrial network, one may conclude that the problem is solved. That is true to some extent; but it still means that hearing aid users have limited consumer choice in the competitive mobile telecommunications marketplace. The history of the incompatibility of the GSM technology with commonly used hearing aids should not be forgotten; since it emphasises the importance of considering the impact of technological change on all consumers, including people with specific disabilities.

Australia is a net technology taker in the global technology market. Therefore, any significant restriction on the availability of equipment could have an adverse effect on the ability of customers to have a choice of new products, and could stifle innovation. On the other hand, without due care being taken, Australia could become a dumping ground for inaccessible, legacy or futuristic telecommunications technology. DCITA's response confirms the importance of the following recommendation. Without a proper disability impact analysis, it is simply not possible to balance the rights and responsibilities of all stakeholders, including members of the telecommunications industry and consumers with disabilities.

Recommendation 16: Disability impact analysis for changes in technology

That HREOC should consider holding discussions with the ACA to develop a regime so that:
A) Whenever a new network technology is proposed for introduction into Australia, and a new class of customer equipment is required for its access; or
B) Whenever a network technology is proposed to be removed,
there shall be a disability impact analysis to assess the impact of the change in technology on people with disabilities.

4.7.2 SMS for Deaf people

The short messaging service (SMS) facility is available with both GSM and CDMA. SMS became popular in Australia several years ago when it became possible to communicate between networks; that is, when Telstra, Optus and Vodafone customers were able to send text messages to each other. For the cost equivalent to a local call people can send messages of up to 160 characters. Text messaging is very popular in Australia, initially among young people, and now there are more than 300 million messages exchanged each month, generating more than one billion dollars annually. SMS uses the signaling network and acts as a store and forward communication method; SMS does not enable real-time communication. It is estimated that 90% of messages are delivered within ten minutes, but the sender gets no confirmation that the message has been received. SMS is not a formal telecommunications service, and there is no SMS regulation. There are no quality of service requirements for SMS, beyond those specified in the Standard Form of Agreement (SFOA) for a mobile phone service - voice, SMS or MMS.

Despite the limitations of SMS it has been a liberation for people who are deaf. SMS is their only means of mobile communication, since they cannot use the voice network and their TTY text phones do not operate over the GSM and CDMA networks. AAD confirms the popularity of SMS for Deaf people, stating that they make frequent use of SMS. However, Deaf people are unhappy that SMS is expensive. Indeed, SMS is by far the most costly form of data transfer across the telecommunications network, since the volume of data in each message is so low. Writing on behalf of AAD, Clark and Harper (2002 c state: "Deaf people began to buy GSM mobile phones despite the high costs and minimal use options because of their ability to use text messaging. SMS use was great for quick messages, sending news, urgent family / friend / work communication and so on. However, they were paying for a service that was mostly created for the voice network - SMS was an extra. This meant that in order to use SMS they had to pay for voice-based services that they couldn't use." For the first time Deaf people can communicate with hearing people using mainstream technology. The communication might be with family or friends, for business or at work."

AAD reports anecdotal evidence that many Deaf people make an average of ten SMS calls each day, ten times the national average." The charge for SMS calls is very high, having regard to the volume of data which is transferred through the network. A Deaf person sending ten text messages each day could face a monthly bill of more than $60, and only 50 kilobytes of data has been transferred. Most people, with voice communication as their natural communication medium, 'text' each other for messaging, not generally for conversation. However, those people with disabilities, who must rely on text communication, also use text messaging for conversation in the absence of their TTY. Since Deaf people, and many people with hearing/speech impairments, cannot use the voice network, the question has to be asked as to whether the SMS charge imposed on them is reasonable in the context of the DDA. They are further disadvantaged comparatively, in that mobile phone 'voice' users are able to take advantage of short-term discount promotions (30-minute chat for $1), but non-voice SMS users cannot.

Some progress has been made by Telstra to provide Deaf people with more equitable monthly plans, emphasising their SMS rather than voice call usage. However, dropping the SMS charges altogether, for Deaf people and people with hearing/speech impairments who need text communication, may have merit. Such a change would not have a substantial negative impact on revenue for the telecommunications industry, whereas it would have a substantial positive impact on the community of Deaf people and people with hearing/speech impairments who rely on text connectivity.

Recommendation 17: SMS charges

That HREOC should consider convening discussions with AAD, Deafness Forum and industry representatives concerning the price of SMS calls for people who are deaf or hearing/speech impaired. The purpose of discussions would be to review SMS charges as compared with the cost of voice calls, whilst having regard to the objective of the DDA to ensure non-discriminatory access to goods, services and facilities by requiring reasonable adjustments unless an unjustifiable hardship would result.

4.7.3 Emergency services

Almost 10% of calls to emergency services originate from public payphones, and more than 30% are calls from mobiles, emphasising the importance of emergency call access for people when they are out and about. For people who are deaf or hearing/speech impaired, they only have emergency call access through 106 from home or work - wherever their TTY resides. ACE (2002b) includes correspondence from the ACA supporting the notion that Telstra as the universal service provider is meeting its statutory responsibility to provide access to emergency services if people can make emergency calls from where they live or carry on business - the home or the place of work. That's the statutory basis, but the community expectation is something greater than that, since people using voice telephony can make emergency voice calls from their mobile phones, from payphones, from their neighbour's phone - from anywhere that there is a telephone handset with dial tone.

The issue of access by Deaf people and people with speech/hearing disabilities using mobile phones is a subset of the much broader issue relating to the incompatibility of TTYs with digital mobile networks. With the closure of the AMPS network and implementation of the GSM and CDMA digital technologies, people with disabilities who require text communication can no longer use their TTYs in conjunction with mobile phones. This prevents them, among other things, from accessing the text-based emergency call number 106 from a mobile phone.

ACA (2002d), the Telecommunications Emergency Call Service Determination 2002, sets out the duties of Carriers, certain Carriage Service Providers and Emergency Call Persons. For example, Carriage Service Providers which only provide long distance or international call services are not covered under the Determination. In the language of the Determination: "Telstra is currently the recognised person who operates an emergency call service for the emergency service numbers 000 and 112. The provider of the National Relay Service is currently the recognised person who operates an emergency call service for the emergency service number 106. The provider of the National Relay Service is Australian Communication Exchange Limited."

In making the determination ACA must have regard to the objectives specified in Section 147(2) of the TCPSS Act 1999, which include "(a) the objective that a carriage service provider who supplies a standard telephone service should provide each end user of that standard telephone service with access, free of charge, to an emergency call service, unless the ACA considers that it would be unreasonable for such access to be provided".

In the recent Canberra bushfires, the total isolation faced by Deaf people was dramatically illustrated. This extract is from personal correspondence. Of course the correspondent required information access, not emergency call access; but the extract highlights the plight of deaf people in dramatic circumstances when mainstream communications media are not inclusive of their special needs.

Pow, we were left with no power. No way of finding out how we can know what to do or when to evacuate. People next door were listening to the radio more concerned about their well being. Getting ready to run if they were told to. We, on the other hand was wondering 'what?', 'what's happening?', 'if we have to evacuate, which route should we use?', 'When do we get to evacuate?', 'Do we stay here?' and many endless questions. It was overwhelming.

We rely extensively with SMS to know what's happening. We got information from hearing family member who is also under stress. But SMS is not reliable. Too many people using the mobile phone, effectively clogging up the mobile network system. Is radio enough for them? TV stations has broadcasting to listen to certain radio station (ABC) for any urgent emergency announcements and or ring Canberra Connect at 13 whatever number (no TTY number was given). For some reasons unknown to us, it was not enough for them. There seem to be no mechanism for us deafies to find out other than relying on people's action on the street. We cannot just watch them and take pre-cautions at the same time. It's just crazy.

Later as it settles down, we found out that the route we intend to escape was closed due to the fire. You can only imagine what is running through our heads (and for anyone Deaf for that matter).

  • So how should we as a community respond?
  • How do we ensure that Deaf people and people with hearing/speech impairments requiring text connectivity have the same rights of telecommunication that hearing people take for granted?
  • How do we ensure that Deaf people and people with hearing/speech impairments requiring text connectivity have the same security of access to emergency services that hearing people take for granted?
  • Does the DDA place a greater responsibility on the telecommunications industry than the USO does, that emergency call access for Deaf people should extend beyond their places of residence and of work?

Once again we come back to the limited extent of the availability of text connectivity beyond TTY access to the analogue fixed telephone network for people who are deaf or hearing/speech impaired. Perhaps a solution lies in a combination of technical progress and subsidies for high-end mobile phones with text capability. DCITA acknowledges that subsidies for the cost of high-end mobile phones with text capability might be a partial solution, but emphasizes that real-time text connectivity would be required rather than simply an SMS enhancement.

DCITA points out that despite the benefits of SMS for Deaf people and people with hearing/speech impairments who rely on text telephony, SMS should not be regarded as an appropriate or reliable means to access emergency call services. This is because SMS is a 'store and forward' service that operates in delayed time, rather than real time, and because SMS does not give the sender feedback about the success or failure of the delivery of the message. DCITA believes that, in the near to medium term, fixed line calls to the emergency number 106 (using a TTY or a computer with modem) provide the most reliable means of access.

Recommendation 18: Text-based access to the Emergency Call Service

That HREOC should give consideration to matters around the right of equitable access by Deaf people and people with hearing/speech impairments to the Emergency Call Service, particularly access from mobile phones, having regard to the Objects of the DDA and the responsibilities conferred on Standard Telephone Service providers.

4.7.4 Access by People who are Blind

People who are blind or vision impaired, like the community generally, have enjoyed the flexibility that results from mobile communications. Furthermore, using their mobile phones they can find each other more easily in public places, and they have the added security of being able to make a phone call if they are lost or feeling endangered. However, they do not get all that they pay for in a mobile phone contract or when they pay for the mobile phone upfront. Many people with low vision find it difficult to find a mobile phone with a large enough, brightly lit screen that they can comfortably read. So if they cannot read the screen, people with low vision face the same denial of access to the features of their mobile phones as do people who are blind.

People who are blind have very limited access to the standard features of mobile phones. In general terms they can only make calls by manually entering the number to be called, and they can receive calls if the phone rings or vibrates. But they do not know the battery strength, the signal strength, if the PIN has been wrongly entered, if calls are missed, if the phone is accidentally on divert, or anything else that is shown on the screen. They cannot use the menu system, the telephone directory system, or anything but the most elementary speed dialing features. And, of course, they cannot use SMS. These features have been introduced gradually, as network services have been enhanced, and as new models of mobile phones have been released. It can even be said of many people who are blind, that they don't know what they're missing. However, at the end of the day, people who are blind pay the same prices for their mobile phones and for mobile service contracts as do sighted people.

There is some hope that the new generation of mobile phones, the ones intended for use on 2.5G and 3G networks, will be more accessible, because these will have some in-built text capability. However, this cannot be taken for granted; since the graphical user interface remains commonplace with portable devices, and mostly inaccessible to people who are blind.

A mobile phone is a particular kind of small computer: central processor, central memory, and operating system. Data input is via radio, the keyboard, the microphone or the i/o connector (typically at the base of the phone); and output is via radio, the screen and the i/o connector. We are starting to see some convergence with mobile phones towards a smaller number of operating systems each of which is used by multiple brands.

The Nokia 9200 series of mobile phones are marketed as personal communicators. They are distinguished from other mobile phones in that they contain a foldout qwerty keyboard and support text-based services including email, word processing and database. There is proprietary software in Sweden that lets the Nokia 9200 series phones act as text telephones for people who are deaf, and there is proprietary software from Germany that provides synthetic speech output for people who are blind. These Nokia phones, 9210i in Australia and 9290 in the United States, use the Symbian Series 80 operating system. The German software is known as TALX, was developed by a small software company named Brand & Gröber, and uses the Eloquence text to speech engine. More information about TALX is available at http://www.talx.de/index_e.htm.

There is another flavour of Symbian called 'Series 60'. This is used on the Nokia 7650 and 3650 phones. Symbian Series 60 is set to become a de-facto standard for most smartphones. These smartphones are not equipped with a qwerty keyboard; they look more like normal mobile phones, but usually have some advanced features like a built-in digital camera. Symbian Series 60 is also likely to be used in less powerful devices. New technology and new service opportunities make it quite probable that many more Series 60 phones will come to the market in the near future.

Symbian is a software licensing company owned by wireless industry leaders. It describes itself as the supplier of the advanced, open, standard operating system for data-enabled mobile phones. Symbian was established as a private independent company in June 1998 and is owned by Ericsson, Nokia, Panasonic, Motorola, Psion, Samsung Electronics, Siemens and Sony Ericsson. The world's first open Symbian-based phone became available in the first half of 2001: the Nokia 9210 Communicator.

In Australia the Nokia 9210i costs $1495 and the TALX software costs $695. In the United Kingdom, Vodafone UK is bundling the Nokia 9210I and TALX for the one charge of 500 pounds ($1300). Telstra and Optus are believed to be making arrangements to assist blind customers to purchase the Nokia 9210I for use with the TALX software. With either company the TALX software must be purchased separately from a third party supplier. Optus is reportedly selling the phone to blind customers at $1095. Telstra is not selling the phone at a discounted rate. Telstra advises: "As at May 2003, Telstra makes available the Nokia 9210i on its 'Mobile Repayment Option (MRO)' and 'MRO High Tiers' payment plan which enables customers on eligible mobile service plans to purchase the phone at a reduced upfront cost and pay the remainder off through equal monthly instalments over 12 or 24 months."

Another interesting development is the sale of Braille-based electronic notetakers with in-built mobile phones. An example is the Alva Mobile Phone Organiser (MPO). It combines the features of a GSM phone with mobile Internet services and essential notetaking capability. It has an eight-key Braille keyboard and uses speech or Braille for output. Future enhancements may include GPS capability for orientation and MP3 capability for music and digital talking books. The Alva MPO is an example of the development of a new generation of personal notetakers for blind people, which capitalise on the convergence of services and functions through the power and flexibility of digital communications. In the end, the success of these products will depend on their adherence to mainstream operating systems and on the convergence of those operating systems to a small standardised set of open specifications that support accessibility features. Whilst this is a welcome development, it will not lead to widespread mobile phone accessibility. These units cost upwards of $10,000, since the Braille display is very expensive. In the future, notetakers with Braille keyboards and synthetic speech output may also be enhanced with mobile phone capability. Significant advantages of the Braille keyboard over the qwerty keyboard, for people who know Braille, are that it is more compact and often easier to use.

Meanwhile, a company in Spain has recently announced its development of software to enhance a wide range of mobile phones with speech. Mobile Accessibility is described as a computer application which makes many features of mobile phones accessible to people who are blind. Using the powerful SVOX multilingual speech synthesiser from Switzerland, the software is platform independent, and is expected to work on all new generation mobile phones regardless of their individual operating system. Information about the company is available at http://codfact.com. The development work for Mobile Accessibility was performed by Code Factory, a software developer established in 1998, which has carried out over fifteen projects in partnership with ONCE (the Spanish National Organisation of the Blind). The development of Mobile Accessibility was supported by a contract from ONCE. A very nice audio demonstration of Mobile Accessibility is available at http://www.mobileaccessibility.com.

Features of the Mobile Accessibility software include:

  • Allows SMS and MMS messages to be sent, received and read;
  • Allows entries on the list of contacts to be added, removed and updated;
  • Gives access to the list of calls received, and one-button dialing to return any of them;
  • Identification of incoming calls;
  • Operation of alarms;
  • Personalisation of voice synthesiser;
  • Access to list of calls (missed calls, numbers dialled,)
  • Automatic start-up when phone is switched on;
  • Allows call tunes to be associated with contacts;
  • Reading of battery strength and signal strength; and
  • Available in several languages: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese.

The Mobile Accessibility software works with the Nokia 3650 and Nokia 7650 mobile phones. During 2003 it is planned that it will also support the Siemens SX1, Samsung SGH-D700, Sony-Ericsson P800, and the SPV Smartphone. This suggests that Mobile Accessibility is compatible with both the Symbian Series-60 and the Microsoft Smartphone 2002 operating systems. These appear to be the dominant operating systems for newly-released 2.5G and 3G mobile phones. If Mobile Accessibility lives up to its promise of comprehensive features and platform independence, and if it is affordable, it will indeed herald a major breakthrough for mobile phone accessibility for people who are blind.

In the United States Dr Bonnie O'Day recently filed a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) against Audiovox Communications Corporation and Verizon Wireless, Inc. under Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act. For a discussion of the US regulatory framework, refer to Section 5.2. The defendants are both manufacturers of wireless telephones and Verizon Wireless is also a provider of wireless telecommunications services. Section 255 and the FCC rules for accessibility require manufacturers and service providers to "… evaluate the accessibility, usability, and compatibility of equipment and services" and to "… incorporate such evaluation throughout product design as early and consistently as possible." Dr O'Day, who is blind, asserts that both companies have failed to make their cellular telephones and services accessible to people who are blind and vision impaired. This filing is the first Formal Complaint submitted to the FCC to enforce the rights provided under Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which requires that telecommunications equipment and services be accessible to and usable by people with disabilities, if readily achievable.

The complaint alleges that the wireless telephones offered by Audiovox and carried on Verizon Wireless's network are not accessible to blind persons because the majority of the wireless phone functions can be used only through visual interaction with a menu and display screen. Specifically, Dr. O'Day requests that the FCC require the defendant companies to make available for downloading into their wireless telephones the software needed to deploy text to speech capability, which would allow the essential functions and services available through a wireless telephone's visual menu to be accessible to blind customers through articulate and intelligible sounds. The complaint stated that this software already exists and its incorporation into wireless telephones is not only 'readily achievable' - it has already been deployed on existing wireless telephones and can be deployed on Audiovox's current high-end wireless telephone, the Audiovox CDM-9500.

The complainant is asking the defendants to make at least one accessible wireless telephone device in all price categories available for consumer purchase by June 30, 2003. Specifically, she asks that each of the defendants be ordered to:

  • provide voice output for all wireless telephone visual information, such that there shall be voicing of all menu options and all operational procedures, including call forwarding and conference call setup;
  • provide input controls that are operable without vision and are readily identifiable by touch and grouped by function, including a nib at the centre of the 5 key;
  • provide voicing of caller-ID data as calls are received; * provide verbal echo of all user input;
  • provide distinct audio alerts at key thresholds such as telephone power off, link quality change, roaming status change, and key battery discharge thresholds (such as 60%, 25%, and 5%); this could be accomplished through the use of a 'summary of key conditions' command mapped to an existing programmable soft-key. Such audio alerts must be mutually distinct;
  • revise each of Defendant's web pages so as to bring them into AAA conformance8 with the international consensus on accessibility standards as published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)'s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) at http://www.w3.org/wai/
  • provide invoices (i. e. , consumer bills) in accessible formats;
  • provide product information in accessible formats in a timely manner, i. e. , consistent with the availability of such information to sighted customers; and
  • ensure the provision of appropriate services to blind customers, through periodic training and review for all customer service staff, including sales and telephone support staff, regarding the needs and concerns of blind persons.

This may prove to be an important test case for cell phone accessibility for people who are blind or vision impaired. Indeed, it may have flow-on effects in Australia and in parts of Europe.

Recommendation 19: Mobile phone accessibility

That HREOC should monitor the progress of the first formal complaint brought by Dr Bonnie O'Day before the FCC in the United States under Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act 1996, and should prepare a briefing note for the telecommunications industry and consumer advocates in Australia when the FCC determination is made.

Recommendation 20: Mobile telecommunications action plan

That HREOC should encourage the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) to work with the ACA and consumer representatives to develop an industry action plan for mobile telecommunications that would set benchmarks for best access practices to be adopted by the industry, including: mobile phone design, features, information and pricing plans.

4.8 Miscellaneous Issues

4.8.1 Videocommunication

Videocommunication is a new frontier of personal multimedia telecommunications. It has been well researched and trialled, but the telecommunications platform is not strong enough to support videotelephony and videoconferencing at prices which make it accessible to individuals. Videotelephony and videoconferencing are still premium services, affordable only to wealthy people and large organisations.

For many Deaf people the potential of videotelephony is very exciting, since it brings the promise of remote communication in their first language - Auslan in Australia. For many Deaf people English is not their first language, so text communication is by no means a preferred form of communication. However, for effective Auslan communication a high-grade connection is required; Clark and Harper (2002e) state that 384kbit/s is deemed to be optimal.

In the language of the ITU-T, developing standards for multimedia conversation, the term 'total conversation' refers to multimedia communication using voice, text and video simultaneously. Two terminal types are emerging for total conversation: a desktop or notebook PC with camera, keyboard, microphone, screen and speaker; or a 3G multimedia mobile phone. The terminal equipment for total conversation across the Internet exists today, but timely transfer of the conversation back and forth across the telecommunications network is not readily achievable. Total conversation works well on circuit-switched video grade channels, even the propagation delay with satellite links is manageable; but packet-switched connections still do not deliver small enough propagation delays. The main problem with circuit-switched video links is that they are very expensive to hire.

ACE has carried out research concerning video-based communication which included video relay trials. The studies are reported in McCaul (1997) and Spencer (2000). Video relay is the case where an Auslan interpreter links a Deaf person using total conversation with a hearing person using speech. Remote interpreting is another example, where the Deaf person and the hearing person may be in the same room, but they need the aid of an Auslan interpreter to communicate. For the ACE video relay trial Deaf people in three Victorian provincial cities went to locations where videoconferencing equipment was installed. Their access to the NRS was via a 384kbit/s link. The ACE research demonstrated the feasibility and popularity of a video relay service.

Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) in the United Kingdom is offering a video interpreting service to try and combat the shortage of qualified interpreters by making their services available over a videophone. By reducing the need for interpreters to travel, RNID hopes that video interpreting can increase the number of deaf people that have access to an interpreter. Fifty videophones have been placed at different sites throughout the country to determine the effectiveness of the service and contribute to improvements and quality standards. The service is not intended as a replacement for face to face interpreting support, but can be used for meetings that are short notice, one to one and/or less than 30 minutes. More details are available from the leaflet at http://www.rnid.org.uk/pdfs/video_interpreting.pdf.

WISDOM is a research project funded by the European Commission, which is developing sign language interaction and information services for Deaf people on the move. The WISDOM project is building a mobile video telecommunications device for deaf people, with access to a video server through text/graphic menus and directly through sign language recognition. Specific design features for Deaf and elderly people will be included. More information about the WISDOM project is available at http://www.mobilewisdom.org/.

The WISDOM project is being carried out during 2001-03. The project objectives include those listed below.

1. Develop and trial a video communication device for Deaf people for use in the UMTS network in Europe. In order to achieve this, the components below will be sourced, designed and produced as necessary. All components will be integrated and developed to preproduction stage.
a. video camera - for sending user sign language (this has to allow control by the system to ensure the framing of the signer's head, shoulders and hands).
b. Pocket keyboard - for text interface to legacy telecommunications devices, internet access and to integrate text/video communications.
c. portable screen unit - for display of video and text. There must be a compromise between screen size, viewing distance and location of camera (for eye contact in sign communication), and size of image.
d. Alert device for incoming calls - wrist vibrator.
e. A UMTS Bluetooth enabled mobile receiver/transmission unit. This will be a standard unit and will simply provide the air interface to the network for the data being generated by the rest of the system. Bluetooth is a wireless communications protocol , with a range of up to ten metres.
2. create a 24/7 video information service for Deaf people on the move allowing them to reach information sources, interactively from any part of the network and throughout Europe.
3. provide access to the information service and emergency services through sign language recognition by a user interface to the video server, activated directly by the users' signing. This requires the successive developments of sign language recognition sets for single signs in British Sign Language, and then subsets in German and Swedish Sign Language.
4. provide access to voice telephone users through a video relay service with sign language interpreters providing the fluent translation in a call that gives the users equal status in interaction. To achieve this, current relay technology and experiences in text-voice interfaces in Sweden will be harnessed. Systems will be developed and trialled for Sweden and the UK.
5. develop a service and quality of service model for network operators which will support future developments in other Member States.
6. Incorporate standards for Global Text Telephony to ensure that a text/video interface is developed and trialled.

Deaf people in Australia will enjoy the true liberation of videotelephony when they can communicate with the NRS or with each other from their desktop or notebook computer at home or at work, or from their notebook computer or 3G phone whilst on the move. We can anticipate that the equipment will be available to support this application quite soon - indeed, for the desktop or notebook computer it is already here at reasonable prices. The stumbling blocks lie in the telecommunications network: the cost of broadband Internet connectivity, the cost of data transfer, and the inadequacy of the VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) to move the data stream quickly enough to support total conversation. We noted previously, in Section 2.4, that streaming is used for transferring audio and video files over the Internet, but there is a propagation delay with streaming that makes it unsuitable for conversation. Recently, overseas trends in videocommunication using IP networks have shown signs of success. IP networks may be preferred over ISDN due to factors that include: reduced costs, multi-application options and more consistent quality of service. Deaf Service organisations in both Canada and the USA, are beginning to use IP networks for provision of videocommunication services, IP Relay and consumer and business transactions.

HR (2002), the report of the Wireless Broadband Inquiry of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications, Information Technology and the Arts gives a good overview of the need for and development of wireless access solutions in Australia, including their application in rural areas where fixed line digital services may not be readily available. The report recommends (p.47):

That the Commonwealth develop the means to provide hearing impaired people with mobile telephones compatible with hearing aids, portable wireless devices that can communicate through the National Relay Service, and appropriately adapted video compression and transmission technology for video communication using sign language.

During the past decade we have witnessed a steady increase in bandwidth capacity of communication channels, and a steady improvement in video compression techniques. This means that for comparably priced bandwidth the quality of video communication is improving quite rapidly. Notwithstanding this steady increase, we still have not reached the stage where videotelephony is adequate for Auslan communication and generally accessible to people who are deaf. More research is required to optimise video communication for Auslan. Auslan includes rapid hand movements and gestures, as well as facial expressions, and of course there is the simultaneous carriage of speech for Auslan interpreting.

One of the drawbacks of discussion about videotelephony and videoconferencing for Auslan communication and relay interpreting for Deaf people is that it creates excitement and expectations which cannot be fully and universally realised in practice. The major barrier is cost: cost of the fixed or terminal equipment; cost of the data channel for fixed line communications, and cost of the data transfer for mobile or wireless communications. Whilst costs will surely drop, they will continue to be high for many Deaf people on low incomes for some years to come.

Assuming that Auslan communication requires a 384kbit/s duplex channel, this equates to a maximum of 48 kilobytes of data per second, equals 2.88 megabytes per minute. Suppose that the data transfer cost was $0.15 per megabyte, then this would equate to $0.43 per minute, equivalent to the cost of mobile telephone voice calls. However, we can expect that the 3G data transfer costs will initially be much higher, charges equivalent to $20 per megabyte are being quoted for the new mobile email access services. This would equate to $57.60 per minute for Auslan on the move, so clearly the tariff has a very long way to fall before mobile video communication is equitable and affordable for people who are deaf. It may be observed that quoted rates for 3G videocommunication are much lower, but so is the picture quality. Relatively high quality video is required for Auslan communication, to ensure that rapid hand movements and facial expressions can be observed. The equity principle is that people who are deaf should be required to pay the same for video communication using Auslan as people who are hearing pay for voice telephony. Furthermore, the telecommunications industry should absorb the additional cost, to the extent that it would start to cause an unjustifiable hardship.

Recommendation 21: Funding arrangements for accessible video telephony

That HREOC should discuss with DCITA the need for research to develop costing models and funding arrangements that would ensure affordability of videotelephony for Deaf people using Auslan.

4.8.2 Payphones

Under the universal service regime public payphones are to be reasonably accessible to all persons, on an equitable basis, wherever they reside or carry on business. There are about 33,500 public payphones in Australia, of which 170 include TTY modules, operated by Telstra as the universal service provider. Another 40,000 payphones are located in private businesses. ACA (2002a), Chapter 8, reports that the use of public payphones is declining in Australia, and Telstra's decline in average revenue per payphone supports this contention. The 2002 ACA consumer satisfaction survey (telephone survey) found that 44% of household respondents had used a payphone during the previous year, down from 55% the year before. Whilst payphones are declining in their use and importance generally, they remain an essential service for some groups of people. 272 million calls were made on Telstra payphones in 2001-02; and, for the 73,000 households which do not have a fixed or mobile phone, payphones are vital. Furthermore, over 900,000 calls from payphones were made to emergency services during the year - almost 10% of emergency calls. In the six years from 1996 payphones have declined by 12%, and the average revenue for public payphones has declined by 24%.

TTY payphones enable people who are deaf or hearing/speech impaired to use a payphone. The user can connect directly to another TTY user or may be connected to a voice user through the NRS. The number of TTY payphones increased by ten in 2001-02. Telstra gives priority to provision of TTY payphones in supervised locations with 24 hour access: shopping centres, hospitals, sporting venues, transport terminals, libraries and airports. However, not all TTY payphones are accessible 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.

Public payphones have been a source of frustration to people with disabilities over many years.

  • People who are blind or vision impaired have complained with little success about the haphazard siting of payphones and their poorly designed hoods which cause mobility hazards;
  • For people who are blind or vision impaired, and for people with intellectual disabilities, credit card phones have been difficult to use without familiarity or clear instructions;
  • For people with physical disabilities, the height of the payphone has often caused problems; and
  • For people who are deaf or hearing/speech impaired there simply have not been enough TTY payphones.

In general terms many of the accessibility issues associated with automatic teller machines are similar to those associated with public payphones. Progress towards ATM accessibility has been made with the voluntary industry standard for ATMs issued by the Australian Bankers Association in 2002. The standard can be viewed or downloaded by following the links at http://www.bankers.asn.au/ABA/adminpages/AdminViewAnArticle.asp?ArticleI....

One approach to increasing the accessibility of public payphones for users with a range of disabilities might be development of an Industry Code on Accessible Payphones. The Code would be developed by ACIF, and could be informed through expertise available from members of the ACIF Disability Advisory Body. This suggestion raises the question of whether there should be separate codes and standards specifying disability access and features, or whether the needs of people with disabilities should be addressed in mainstream specifications. In this imperfect world, where universal design is not ubiquitous and integration is not complete, both approaches have merit. Elements of an industry Code on accessible payphones might include:

  • Access and location: This relates to siting of the payphone, the form and visibility of its cabinet or hood, the height of the payphone and other aspects of physical accessibility.
  • Phone operation: This relates to the usability of the phone, including TTY-capability, and usability by people with hearing impairments. It also covers use by people with limited manual dexterity.
  • Using credit cards and phone cards: This covers insertion and withdrawal of cards, including orientation.
  • Coin insertion and retrieval: This covers design and location of the slot for coin insertion, the trigger for retrieving excess coins, and the tray on which they are deposited.
  • Shortcut keys and direct lines: This covers the layout and design of shortcut keys, and buttons for access to direct lines.
  • Audio/visual display: This covers the design of the visual display, including font size and font style for comfortable use by people with a wide range of visual abilities and preferences. It also covers the provision of audio information for people who cannot read the screen. This also covers dual modality alerts.
  • Phone keypad: This covers the size, configuration and location of the telephone keypad. It should be positioned for convenient use by people with a range of disabilities, using large, clearly-labelled keys that give clear feedback when pressed.
  • Security and privacy: This covers the siting of public payphones in such a way that users can both talk privately and observe their local environment.
  • Installation and maintenance: This covers the distribution of payphones throughout the community, and measures to enable users to find them. This is important for blind people who cannot see where public payphones are, and for Deaf people who require TTY-enabled payphones. Whilst payphones should be kept in working order, the environment should also be adequately maintained with regard to public health and safety.
  • Operating instructions: This covers the content of operating instructions and their formats. Instructions need to be clear and concise, to aid their comprehension and minimise the time taken in referring to them. Instructions must be accessible to people with limited English skills, and people with intellectual disabilities, so they should be accompanied by pictograms. Instructions should be in a large, clear font for people with low vision; and, for people who are blind, they should be available audibly.

Recommendation 22: Public payphone accessibility

That HREOC should hold discussions with the ACA and ACIF towards development of an industry code on public payphone accessibility, which, if compliance was demonstrable, may support an organisation wishing to obtain a temporary exemption under the DDA concerning public payphones. An Accessible Payphones Industry Code could cover items such as: access and location; phone operation; using credit cards and phone cards; coin insertion and retrieval; shortcut keys and direct lines; audio/visual display; phone keypad; security and privacy; installation and maintenance; and operating instructions.

The increase in 2001-02 of just ten TTY payphones seems very low. It is hard to imagine that the number has reached saturation level; rather, there must be some impediments to their greater rollout. Independent research may be needed to determine the appropriate number of TTY payphones based on specific criteria for their deployment.

Estens (2002) recommended (R2.12) that sites of Telstra-operated payphones, together with the numbers of payphones at each site, should be made publicly and readily available. Consideration should be given to including payphone locations at least in local telephone directories in regional areas. It is pleasing to note that Telstra has recently published a list of TTY public payphones on its website. The list is at http://www.telstra.com.au/disability/ttypayphones/index.htm.

Estens (2002) also recommended (R2.14) that the Government should review the provision of payphone services to people with disabilities. In particular it should take steps to ensure that competition in the supply of payphones does not impact adversely on access to teletypewriter payphones. This matter was raised by AAD which expressed concern that private operators of payphones may not provide TTY payphones. In its response to the Estens Inquiry The Government accepted Recommendation 2.14 and stated that it "… will work with Telstra and the ACA to review payphone policy and ensure that the provision of payphones under the Universal Service Obligation (USO) continues to be effective and relevant."

Recommendation 23: Action plan for TTY payphones

That HREOC should convene discussions between Telstra, Deafness Forum and AAD to develop a TTY payphone installation plan, with the objective of meeting the demands of AAD for more TTY payphones and clarifying with Telstra its duty under the DDA as the universal service provider.

There is also a problem with privately-owned payphones, that many of them are not accessible. Indeed, AAD states that there are cases where accessible public payphones have been replaced by inaccessible private payphones.

Recommendation 24: Private payphone accessibility

A) That HREOC should provide advice to Standards Australia and consumer advocates on upgrading Australian Standard AS1428 "Design for access and mobility", to ensure that the specifications relating to payphones are commensurate with disability consumer and telecommunication industry requirements.
B) That HREOC should discuss with DCITA and consumer advocates possible solutions, including legislative, relating to the installation and siting of private payphones.

4.8.3 Research and Development

The rapidly changing telecommunications technology gives consumers more choices in communication: fixed, mobile or Internet. The new digital technology with faster transfer speeds supports new network services. People have been quick to embrace new telecommunications services in Australia, as the rapid growth of mobile phones and the Internet both demonstrate, which results in a change in social interactions and increased expectations for connectivity. People expect to be able to connect with anyone, from anywhere and at any time. Regrettably the needs of people with disabilities in accessing new services, and the impact on people with disabilities of new technology, are often not considered until it is too late. As noted previously, the closure of the AMPS network and the opening of the GSM network were major blows for people who were Deaf or hearing impaired. The AMPS closure denied mobile text connectivity to Deaf People, and the GSM technology caused major interference for hearing impaired people using hearing aids. Goggin and Newell (2003) give a detailed analysis of the relationship between disability and technology in their study of the impact of new media on people with disabilities.

The Commonwealth Government provided $3 million over the two years 1998-2000 via the AccessAbility grants program to support innovative projects that help people with disabilities gain improved access to online information and communications services. There are links to project summaries, final reports and related resources from http://www.dcita.gov.au/Article/0,,0_1-2_1-4_13560,00.html. The program, hosted by the National Office of the Information Economy, focused attention on web access and emerging communication issues for people with a range of disabilities. Many people were disappointed that a successful program was not continued, despite the urgent and ongoing need for research and development in Australia to support people with disabilities in telecommunications and Internet access.

Recommendation 25: Research and development grants program

That the Government should establish a competitive grants program to support innovative research and development in the field of accessible telecommunications in Australia. The program might have the purposes of capturing benefits of new technology, research and development of accessible customer equipment, solving access problems associated with new technology or network services, identifying and demonstrating examples of international best practice in specialised services, and assessing the potential of multimedia communication products and services.

Next part: Part 5