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Government Backs Deaf Relay Service

2 May 2002

A telephone relay service will be set up for people who are Deaf, or who have speech or hearing impairments, Communications Minister Paul Swain and Disability Issues Minister Ruth Dyson announced today.

The relay service will be established as a Telecommunications Service Obligation (TSO), under the Telecommunications Act 2001. The Act requires telecommunications companies to provide services that are defined as TSOs. However, the Minister of Communications must consult with the industry and other interested parties before a service can be declared a TSO.

The service will enable people with communication disabilities to converse using a teletypewriter (TTY) to type text. An intermediary converts that text into conversation for the person at the other end and vice versa.

“It’s much like a call centre, although a very specialised one,” said Mr Swain.

The provision of the relay service brings New Zealand into line with many other developed countries including Australia.

Ms Dyson said one of Labour’s pre-election promises was to ensure that telecommunications providers fulfil their human rights obligations and provide access to services that meet needs.

“All citizens need access to instant two-way voice communication, not only in an emergency, but to participate fully in the community, which is a fundamental principle of the New Zealand Disability Strategy,” she said.

“The provision of a relay service will reduce the health and safety risks faced by people who are Deaf or who have hearing or speech impairments, and increase their employment, business and social opportunities.”

Mr Swain said the government had been considering the best method for meeting the telephone needs of people with disabilities for some time, and had looked at several options, including text-capable mobile phones.

He said the tender process would be technology-neutral and in three to five years the contract will be re-tendered to allow for improved technology.

“Choosing the relay service came down to the simple fact that at the moment it is the only service that can provide instant response and widely available telephone communication. We will certainly be keeping abreast of any new technologies and any advancements they can offer.”

The Ministries of Economic Development, Health and Social Development will develop a detailed description of the relay service in consultation with the disability community and telecommunications industry, and report back to both ministers by the end of October. They will also report back on the provision and funding of the teletypewriter equipment needed to access the service.

Mr Swain said the government aimed to have the relay service up and running by the end of the year, and annual costs – excluding the teletypewriter equipment – are expected to initially be $2 million.

“Even if the telecommunications companies pass on the full cost to consumers, by no means a certainty, the cost is likely to be around three cents per household a week,” he said.

“This move represents a major step forward in the delivery of telecommunications services to the deaf and speech or hearing impaired,“ said Mr Swain.


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