Ofcom plans to upgrade telecoms services for disabled people

Phone users with hearing and/or speech impairments stand to benefit from new measures being proposed today by Ofcom.

By law, communications providers must provide ‘text relay’ services for disabled consumers. This involves a relay assistant converting typed messages into speech and then back again, allowing consumers with hearing and/or speech impairments to communicate on the phone.

Ofcom research has found that these conversations can be slow and sometimes fail to flow naturally. Ofcom is therefore proposing to upgrade services by introducing a number of modifications to bring the experience more in line with voice communications. This includes a new feature that will allow users to interject during a conversation, instead of having to wait until the end of a message.

Ofcom is also setting out options for the introduction of video relay for British Sign Language (BSL) users.

Ofcom Consumer Group Director, Claudio Pollack, said: “People with disabilities can face barriers when using communications services. Although the wide availability and use of broadband and mobile text services has provided greater opportunities for disabled people to communicate, people with hearing and/or speech impairments continue to meet barriers when using voice telephony.

“The proposed measures outlined today aim to reduce these barriers by allowing conversations to flow naturally in real time.”

Ofcom has conducted research to better understand the needs of disabled consumers when accessing communications services. That research suggests that the current approved text relay service remains a valuable service for many users with hearing and/or speech impairments, helping them to communicate with others on an equivalent basis to voice communications.

However, the current text relay service was criticised for not allowing natural real time conversations, slow conversation speeds and for not being compatible with mainstream equipment such as PCs and Macs. Users of British Sign Language – particularly those with low levels of literacy – also reported finding text relay services difficult to use.

Having considered the options, Ofcom is proposing that a Next Generation Text Relay service should be introduced to support the following: The introduction of simultaneous two-way speech with “live captions”. This will allow users to interject and would remove the need to say ‘go ahead’ after each part of a conversation, improving the flow of conversation; Use of mainstream equipment. This will allow users to access services either through existing relay equipment or through mainstream consumer electronics such as PCs and netbooks.

Recognising the benefits that video relay could offer some disabled consumers, particularly BSL users with low levels of literacy, Ofcom is also proposing the introduction of video relay on a restricted basis. A further consultation on the detailed implementation of a video relay service will be conducted once the appropriate level of restriction has been established.

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