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Deaf community leaders challenge telecommunications industry over inequalities

10 May 2012

Representatives of the deaf community, including the leaders of the main deaf charities in the UK, have called on domestic telecommunications providers to take action to improve deaf people’s access to telecommunications. In an open letter to the Chief Executives of BT, O2, Vodafone, Three, Talk Talk, KCom, Virgin Media, Everything Everywhere and BskyB, the signatories state that the industry is worsening inequalities by delaying the introduction of specialised relay services, which allow deaf people to use telecommunications. The publication of the letter comes during Deaf Awareness Week.

Following Government talks in November 2011, the Communications Minister, Ed Vaizey MP, repeatedly called on the telecommunications industry to work with the deaf community to find solutions which meet their communications needs. Community representatives including the heads of the British Deaf Association, UK Council on Deafness and the National Deaf Children’s Society now say that they have become frustrated by the industry’s failure to engage.

“You have failed to meet with us in open forum in response to the Minister’s request and your silence has been deeply disappointing.”

The open letter, which is also signed by a former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Rt Hon Ben Bradshaw MP, and the Chair of the All Party Group on Deafness, Rt Hon Malcolm Bruce MP, calls on the industry to act.

“…engage fully with us and all relevant stakeholders to find a viable solution which delivers functionally equivalent telecommunications for deaf people. Positive action by the industry is long overdue. You are delaying the introduction of modern relay services, and exacerbating the isolation and disadvantage which is faced by deaf people who are denied equal access to telecommunications.  (…) Deaf people are waiting for you to act.”

The UK Government recently transposed the revised EU Electronic Communications Framework into law. This sets out a legal requirement to ensure that disabled end-users enjoy access to telecommunications which are functionally equivalent to those enjoyed by other end-users. For deaf British Sign Language (BSL) users, Video Relay Service (VRS) is the only functionally equivalent service. It allows BSL users to speak in sign language over the telephone, via a video interpreter at speeds close to standard conversation. 

David Buxton, CEO of the British Deaf Association said:

“A universally available Video Relay Service would transform the lives of deaf British Sign Language users, providing equality and opportunity for tens of thousands of people.  Deaf people have waited long enough for equality in telecommunications and are still being forced to rely on outdated technologies to speak to their friends and families. It’s time for the industry to act.”

Jim Edwards, Chair of the UK Council on Deafness commented:

“The government has asked telecommunications providers to make sure their services are extended to 10.8 million deaf and hard of hearing people, who can’t simply pick up the phone to make a call in the same way that most of us take for granted. We’ve written this letter to the telecommunications companies to re-state our invitation to collaborate with us to get that work underway.”