CRTC to end service for deaf

N. Van man fights to keep video-relay 'access to world'

A North Vancouver man is campaigning to save what he says is a vital telephone service for people with impaired hearing.

Ryan Ollis, 31, has gathered more than 200 petition signatures so far and has presented his case to the City of North Vancouver's council. Roughly 10,000 petitions are circulating across Canada.

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Video relay service, or VRS, allows people with impaired hearing to use sign language over the telephone. To use it, a caller signs in front of a camera. That video is relayed to a call centre where a translator speaks into the telephone to a hearing person at the other end of the conversation. That person's spoken reply, in turn, is translated into sign language and displayed on the caller's television screen.

The video service replaces the older teletypewriter service, or TTY, in which operators translated typed messages into speech and vice versa.

Video relay has been available in the U.S. since 2002, but only came to Canada as a one-year CRTC trial in July of 2010. The pilot program was extended by six months, but will be discontinued Jan. 15.

"It's been a very positive experience for me," Ollis signed from his Central Lonsdale home, in an interview using VRS. "It allows me to be much more independent. TTY is really clunky, and I wasn't getting my communication needs met. Sometimes the message relay operator wouldn't get the message right, or it would be really slow, or they would jump ahead of what the person was saying. Basically, I wasn't able to have a coherent conversation with the TTY."

The technical problems are compounded by the fact that communicating using text removes the emotional content from a conversation, Ollis signed. What's more, many deaf people feel that sign, not English, is their first language.

"If I can express myself in my natural language, my own emotions and my own intonations come out," Olli signed. "For me, when I was typing on the TTY, I found a lot of the communication is lost. Using the VRS allows me to have much better, clearer conversations. It was difficult to get my point across with the TTY. If I wanted to apply for a job, for example, I would have to ask someone to help me, someone to call for me in order to make plans to set up an interview. I was very dependent upon other people for help."

According to Lisa Anderson-Kellett, spokeswoman for the B.C. VRS Committee, 10 per cent of Canada's population lives with some level of hearing impairment. The 311 B.C. and Alberta residents involved in the VRS trial placed 76,000 calls over the past 18 months. Two thirds of those calls, she signed, were between two deaf people and required no translator. Operators have logged 6,500 hours of translation.

"Those are pretty good statistics, if you ask me," she signed.

Telus will report back to the CRTC on the results of the trial, but the communications regulator is not expected to decide on the future of the service until 2013. That means Ollis, Anderson-Kellett and others will have to go back to the cumbersome TTY system for at least a year - and possibly permanently.

"The TTY is like a dinosaur, and they are generally about $800," Anderson-Kellett signed. "People got rid of them when the videophone came along. It was so fantastic, and we thought we'd never have to use the TTY again."

There is translation software for use over the Internet and on iPhones, Ollis signed, but those options may be out of reach for people with limited incomes. The cost of requiring telecom companies to provide VRS and how it could be paid for are the main questions the CRTC will study in 2012.

No CRTC officials were available to be interviewed, but the commission did release a written statement.

"At issue is whether it would be appropriate to require service providers to provide VRS and to require telecom subscribers to subsidize the cost of the service as requested by groups representing persons with hearing and speech disabilities. The CRTC currently requires service providers to provide two other relay services, teletypewriter relay and Internet protocol relay, which meet the needs of the majority of Canadians with hearing loss. TTY and IP relay services are significantly less expensive to provide, and the cost of these services are subsidized across the general body of telecom subscribers."

The CRTC acknowledged the benefit of VRS for people who use American Sign Language or its French counterpart, langue des signes québécoise, or LSQ.

"However," the statement said, "due to the high cost of subsidizing such a service, it is necessary to acquire accurate information pertaining to cost, user market size and projected use of this service before further assessing requests to require providers to offer the service."

That's little comfort for Anderson-Kellett, who pointed out that Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the UN's Convention for Rights of People with Disabilities both guarantee the right to access translators and communication.

As well as circulating a petition, Ollis is organizing a Jan. 13 rally outside the CRTC's Vancouver office.

"It's like taking away a disabled person's wheelchair and saying 'Sorry, you can't have a wheelchair any more. How are you going to survive without it?'" he signed. "It's like tearing away our access to the world."

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