CapTel steps in to keep text-captioned telephones running for Australia’s deaf community

CapTel’s US operation has stepped in to temporarily keep their text-captioned telephone service running for Australia’s deaf community despite the Federal Government cancelling its deal with the service provider.

Thousands of hearing-impaired Australians feared losing the service as of February 1 after the Department of Communications declined to renew the United States service provider’s contract with the National Relay Service (NRS) in favour of another company.

But in a letter to users of the phone handsets — which display words on a large screen in near real-time so deaf and hearing-impaired users can make calls and see responses — CapTel said the captioning service would continue to be deliver captioning as an interim measure outside of the NRS.

Captioned Telephone International president Rob Engelke wrote to users telling them he was optimistic the Federal Government’s decision could change, but for the “near term” captions would be delivered from US captioning centres.

“I have been genuinely moved by the outpouring of heartfelt messages from Australians who are clearly distressed and frightened about living without CapTel,” he said.

“CapTel has been available for over 10 years in Australia and I believe it is not acceptable to leave CapTel users without access to family, friends, employment, emergency services and the myriad ways that all of us use the telephone.”

“Therefore, as a temporary measure, I have instructed our American captioning centres to support existing Australian CapTel handsets so that they will continue to operate with captions while we investigate long-term options based in Australia.”

For Christine O’Reilly, the CapTel phone changed her life.

Ms O’Reilly’s hearing has been deteriorating since childhood and now at 62, she is profoundly hearing impaired.

“We are humbled, joyful and extremely grateful,” she said about Mr Engelke’s announcement.

“This is the epitome of empathy and human kindness.

“A small business extends a helping hand to vulnerable people in a charitable way. It does what a Government with billions at its disposal and driven only by a budget bottom line refuses to do.

“Accessible communications for all is a basic human right and not one that should be borne by private enterprise.”

Ms O’Reilly said although this is a small victory, the fight does not stop “until CapTel is restored to being funded by the Government as it should be”.

The department’s decision has been criticised by disability advocates, with many users facing the prospect of reverting to what are known as TTY teletypewriter phones — technology first introduced in the 1980s.

Other options offered by the Department of Communications are internet-based call captioning and apps designed to work on mobile phones and tablets.

But users said many of the online options were much slower and less user-friendly, requiring them to fill in multiple fields just to initiate a phone call.

And advocates point out the average age of CapTel phone users is more than 80.

Critics say the decision has come down to money.

The cost of the NRS has blown out in recent years, from $26.3 million in 2015-16 to $31.2 million in 2017-18.

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