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Deaf Australia

Introduction

Deaf Australia (previously Australian Association of the Deaf) is pleased to have the opportunity to make this submission to the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy's (DBCDE) Feasibility Study into an Independent Disability Equipment Program and commends the Government on undertaking this review.

Telecommunications is a large and important area in a Deaf person's every day life and potentially impacts on how we are able to function in Australian society. We therefore seek to ensure that Deaf (and hard of hearing) people have equitable access to all areas of telecommunications.

Deaf Australia's Deaf Telecommunication Access and Networking (DTAN) project, funded by the DBCDE, has the obligation to represent the views of Deaf people in relation to all telecommunication matters. DTAN has consulted widely with the Deaf community and researched issues and needs in relation to improving access to products and services within the Australian telecommunication industry. DTAN has ongoing input from our telecommunication experts from the Deaf community and Consumers Telecommunications Network (CTN): Anthony Young ( Deaf), Timothy Morgan (Deaf), Katrina Parker (Deaf), Teresa Corbin (Executive Officer, CTN - hearing), Karen Lloyd (Deaf Australia Executive Officer - Deaf) and Andrew Wiltshire (DTAN Project Officer - Deaf).

The DTAN project has accumulated a range of responses to our own discussion papers pertaining to different issues in the area of telecommunications and has also developed two position papers that have relevance to the Independent Disability Equipment Program discussion paper. The position papers are; a) ‘Disability Equipment Program Position Paper', 20021 and b) ‘What is Deaf equivalent to Voice Telephony?', 20062.

Deaf Australia recently developed a Vision 2020 document which is based on the Vision 2020 developed by the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) for their work in the international Deaf community. Deaf Australia is the Australian Ordinary (voting) Member of the WFD. Our Vision 2020 outlines Deaf Australia's vision for Deaf people in Australia in the year 2020 and this has bearing on our response to this discussion paper:

In 2020

Deaf People have full human rights through recognised sign language (Australian Sign Language – or Auslan), through quality of education, and quality of life as well as through full access and self-determination in an equal world.

Governments have incorporated and implemented human rights for all, including those who are linguistic minorities and those who are considered vulnerable. The UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities is implemented in Australia, along with other UN Human Rights instruments. Technology has advanced significantly, creating more equal ‘playing fields'.

In this submission references will be made to the above position papers, our Vision 2020 and Articles in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD).

Please note that the use of the term ‘video communications' in this submission encompasses all equipment and services that enables video communications such as videophones, computers & webcams and mobile phones as well as future technologies that allows video calling.

Response to List of Questions in discussion paper

Current Arrangements in Australia

Question 1: Should specialised equipment that enables people with disabilities to access phones, mobile phones and computers be included on an independent disability equipment program? Please give reasons to support your answer.

Absolutely!

In 1995, Deaf Australia played an instrumental role in the Scott vs. Telstra case in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) – now the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). This was a landmark decision that paved the way for an extended disability equipment program (DEP) that included alternative telecommunication equipment such as a TTY, Telebraille and modem to be provided by telecommunications carriers. In 1996, as a result of this decision, Telstra contracted ACE to manage its TTY voucher scheme for individuals to purchase their own preferred equipment which later changed to the current rental scheme operated by both Telstra and Optus.

The Telecommunications Act (1997) was amended in 1998 to ensure that responsibility for the Standard Telephone Service and management of disability equipment became part of the Universal Service Obligation (USO). This was a significant step forward in terms of ensuring improved accessibility for disability equipment for Deaf Australians and people with a disability.

Telecommunications in contemporary Australia has changed significantly since the Scott vs Telstra decision now with access to mobile phones, the Internet and broadband and this has brought about changes in how Deaf people communicate as well, most significantly the ability to communicate with each other in sign language as well as in English.

Our position is that any specialised equipment that enables any person with a disability to access phones, mobile phones and computers, as well as broadband, that incurs additional expense to what an average Australian consumer without a disability would have to pay should be made available through an independent disability equipment program. Our Disability Equipment Program position paper outlines our position in further detail.

In addition, the UN CRPD Article 4: General obligations states that:

1. States Parties undertake to ensure and promote the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons with disabilities without discrimination of any kind on the basis of disability. To this end, States Parties undertake:

(g) To undertake or promote research and development of, and to promote the availability and use of new technologies, including information and communications technologies, mobility aids, devices and assistive technologies, suitable for persons with disabilities, giving priority to technologies at an affordable cost;

Question 2: Is subsidised access to specialised equipment an equality issue? Please give reasons to support your answer.

In the discussion paper it states that it was argued by some that it is inquitable for people whose disability prevents them from using standard equipment to have to purchase additional equipment and that it should be included on an independent disability equipment program. This is in line with Deaf Australia's position.

In addition to the reference made in our response to Question 1 regarding our Disability Equipment Program position paper we also would like to make reference to our other position paper ‘What is Deaf equivalent to Voice Telephony?' which states that the Deaf community is of the view that video telephony should be considered as the Deaf person's equivalent to a voice telephone and therefore that video communications should be offered at equitable prices.

The international experience

Question 3: Are there any international disability equipment programs that could provide a model for a future Australian program?

Question 4: Are there any examples where an international equipment program has provided mobile phones and computer equipment to people with disabilities via a national scheme?

Deaf Australia is not familiar with overseas programs but do know TEDICORE has outlined some relevant findings in its submission. However, it would be highly recommended that extensive research be undertaken by ACCAN that looks into different models available overseas and how they are administered, if information from this research is crucial in developing Australia's own independent disability equipment program.

In addition to the section in the discussion paper under 1.2 The international experience, Deaf Australia understands that Deaf people who live in the United Kingdom are able to access free equipment such as the TTY from their local council (as well as other equipment such as flashing alert fire alarms, etc).

Future demand

Question 5: Are there any future demand issues that should be considered further? For example, are you aware of any relevant international studies into the impact of ageing populations on the demand for specialised communications equipment?

Question 6: In your view, will technological developments continue to reduce the need for specialised equipment?

Our position paper ‘What is Deaf Equivalent to Voice Telephony' states that 64% of respondents to our discussion paper (of the same title) felt that video telephony was the closest equivalent to voice telephony. Needless to say voice communications is taken for granted in the mainstream society and is heavily depended on by today's society. For Deaf people to be able to participate in what voice communications offers to every individual both in the home and at the workplace it is necessary for the Government to recognise that video communications is considered the closest equivalent.

The UN CPRD Article 2, Definitions states that “Language” includes spoken and signed languages and other forms of non-spoken languages. Combined with the principles as set out under both Article 4 – General Obligations and Article 9 – Accessibility, it is essential that principles of universal design is enshrined in all Government policy and public procurement as well as implementation of minimum standards and guidelines for the accessibility of equipment.

Advances to technology have provided more opportunities for Deaf people to participate in today's society especially with the advent of video communications and most recently, the Multi Media Response trial by Australian Communication Exchange and we envisage future advances to have significant influence on picture quality, especially the recent announcement by the Government for the National Broadband Network in Australia.

We would also think that were video phones that incorporate voice and text communication to become the norm then the need for specialised equipment for Deaf and hard of hearing people would be greatly reduced.

Eligibility Issues

Question 7: What eligibility criteria should apply regarding access to specialised equipment on an independent disability equipment program?

Question 8: Should access to subsidised specialised equipment be subject to any income means testing? Please give reasons for your response.

Question 9: Do you regard access to an independent disability equipment program as primarily an accessibility or affordability issue? Please give reasons for your response.

Question 10: Do you believe that the needs of people with disabilities on low incomes for access to mobile phones and computers differ substantially from the needs of people without disabilities on low incomes? How?

Anyone who identifies themselves with a disability should be entitled to specialised equipment without prejudice and should not be income means tested, if equipment provided would enable them to participate equally in the world of communications.

Currently for a Deaf person to obtain equipment i.e. through Telstra's DEP, we must complete an application form and have it signed by an authorized professional such as a Medical Practitioner or an audiologist. This process takes time and whilst we understand safeguards need to be in place to prevent fraud, it is imperative that the application process is simple, straightforward and approval given instantly (as opposed to few days/weeks with the current DEP).

Implementing a means testing system for future applicants would be viewed as discriminatory if this result in anyone having to incur additional expense to access the closest equivalent service as is the case for Deaf people who wish to implement video communications or use mobiles.

Furthermore, as documented in our Disability Equipment Program position paper under ‘Critical Concerns' the current DEPs do not allow for families of Deaf people to access the program. Some of Deaf Australia's members have said that this is unfair and unreasonable. They believe the program should be widened to include immediate family members such as parents or siblings to enable them to have direct communication with their Deaf family members. This would also fall in line with principles outlined in the UN CRPD Article 23 – Respect for home and the family.

Since Deaf people currently need communications equipment that is different from and more expensive than the equipment that non-Deaf people need, the needs of Deaf people on low incomes are substantially different from the needs of non-Deaf people on low incomes. However, this is not an issue that affects only people on low incomes, it affects all Deaf people regardless of income.

Different delivery models

Question 11: Are there any other potential delivery models?

Question 12: What approach do you favour and why do you consider that this approach is better than the alternative delivery models?

Question 13: Is an outreach service essential? Why? If so, how should it operate?

In our DEP position paper we stated that:

Future System for DEP

Deaf Australia is of the belief that for the Disability Equipment Program to be effective and meet the needs of the Deaf community, it needs to be operated by a consumer led, independent organisation. The organisation should have an understanding of consumer needs and be able to work with and be responsive to the needs of the individual. We understand that to achieve this objective, Federal legislation will need to be changed. The new organisation or program should endeavour to include the requirements listed below.

This list is not in order of priority:

  • A National comprehensive DEP program including program awareness, information, equipment choice, equipment provision, installation, training and on going support.
  • A wide choice of equipment to meet the needs of Deaf people.
  • Ability to hire equipment for long and/or short term use.
  • Must employ Deaf people to assist with providing services and be aware of Deaf issues*.
  • Able to access any carriage service providers (CSPs) and choose a plan that suits Deaf person.
  • Consumer controlled and managed.
  • Ongoing equipment training and installation to customers.
  • Funded through Universal Service Obligations from all CSPs.
  • Expanded to include immediate family members of Deaf people.
  • Extended to include all telecommunications services including land lines.
  • Liaise closely with ACMA, DBCDE, Communications Alliance and CSPs in terms of new equipment becoming available.
    *This principle is consistent with CSPs in the UK, Canada and USA, where Deaf staff are employed to assist service provision.

Much has changed in the telecommunications environment since our position paper was written in 2002. The principles set out in our position paper however, still stand.

An outreach service is absolutely essential for the success of the independent disability equipment program and this can be evidenced by the ongoing need for an Outreach service provided by the National Relay Service. We strongly believe too, that the provider of such an independent disability equipment program should be responsible for the operation of an outreach service unlike the current NRS model where it is administered by another company.

Furthermore, we refer to the TEDICORE submission which suggests that a company be funded by the Commonwealth based on an industry levy fee. The company would be founded on a set of principles that are clear but flexible to accommodate future technological advances that could benefit people with disabilities.

Governance structures

Question 14: Are there any other potential governing models?

Question 15: What sort of governance structure should apply to administration of an independent disability equipment program?

As outlined in the previous section our position is that any independent disability equipment program must be operated by a consumer led and independent organisation.

Regardless of any governance model decided by DBCDE it is imperative that the whole program is progressive and sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities who need equipment and any technological advances in equipment is implemented without delay.

A good example of how a suitable governance structure could be developed is the ACCAN model in terms of how the process was facilitated by DBCDE through extensive consultation with national peak disability organisations in regard to a suitable business model and how it will allow consumers to be heard in the future However, this does not necessarily mean that the eventual governance structure should be the same as ACCAN's.

Our concern is that the program should continually develop and make available any equipment that is considered to be essential to anyone with a disability without delay and is progressive with changes in technology or legislation. The current DEP has not seen any additions to equipment that can be available to consumers (apart from the Big Button telephone) because it was implemented on the basis of providing an equivalent service to a voice phone for fixed line communications only and made no provision for how to deal with and keep abreast of changes in technology and the communications environment.

Deaf Australia along with other national disability organisations have advocated for changes to the DEP for a very long time and we strongly believe that the governance structure implemented must allow direct communication channels for advocates to provide input regarding emerging issues, technological advances and how the program is administered.

We would welcome further consultation in regard to the development of such a model.

Equipment, software and other technologies

Question 16: What types of specialised equipment should be included on an independent disability equipment program?

Question 17: What types of equipment should be excluded?

Question 18: How could people's understanding of the features of their phones and computers be improved?

For Deaf people to fully embrace the possibilities video communications can offer, it is essential that videophone equipment or other suitable devices be made available through the independent DEP. The equipment must also be fitted with suitable visual alerts (whether fitted internally or additional equipment made available) to alert the Deaf person of an incoming call. Mobile phones need a vibrating alert.

The Multi Media Response (MMR) currently being trialled by Australian Communication Exchange requires registered users to download a softphone program into their computers in order to access the MMR service. If this softphone program is proved capable of providing optimum video communications it should be made available to Deaf people at no cost.

In order for Deaf people to use videophones using a broadband connection it is essential that high speed broadband is made available to Deaf people without excess download speed shaping and currently this usually incurs additional expense for the Deaf consumer. Therefore we consider that if Internet Service Providers are unable to provide the Deaf consumer with a suitable equitable plan, an alternative plan should be made available through the independent disability equipment program.

Mobile phones that are fitted with optimum video calling capabilities are usually tailored towards the higher end of the market (especially those that cater to the business professional) and are more expensive; these mobile phones should be made available through the independent disability equipment program. In addition video calling using mobile phones is more expensive than it is to make a voice call. Should the difference in the call rates be covered/rectified by the CSPS themselves or subsided through the independent disability equipment program? These are examples of what may need to be considered for inclusion in the program.

The independent disability equipment program should also include delivery and installation of equipment especially videophones which often require an I.T. professional to configure the consumer's broadband network to open ports and allow access for video communications through firewalls. Video Relay Service providers in the United States who provide free equipment to their subscribers are required to either provide plug in and play devices and/or provide installation if required.

As outlines in our ‘What is Deaf Equivalent to Voice Telephony' position paper, it is Deaf Australia's belief that Deaf people would be able to further participate in the mainstream society by having access to video communications in their workplace, homes and importantly, via a Video Relay Service (VRS). VRS in turn, will provide much more than just what equipment, software and other technology can offer; it will provide the real-time and emotionally and psychologically satisfying answer to facilitating communication between Deaf and hearing people. The position paper also provides further information on why a VRS is quicker and more efficient to use as opposed to both the current text based NRS and Internet Relay.

Intensive ongoing consultation should be made between all national peak organisations and the provider of the independent DEP to look at what equipment and services should be made available through the DEP to enable people with disabilities to communicate effectively and equitably. This consultation will need to commence well in advance of the commencement of the DEP to ensure that all equipment is available immediately on commencement of the service.

Making equipment available in Australia

Question 19: In your view, is there any specialised equipment that is not currently available in Australia that should be added to an Australian disability equipment program? Why? How many people would benefit if this equipment was available?

Videophones, and possibly mobile phones or some aspects of them, should be included in a DEP but currently are not.

Generally speaking, several videophone technologies are available in Australia currently but there are discrepancies in how they are priced or used in Australia. There are also many more models that can be found in the United States that are not available for sale in Australia especially newer models with internal flashing light alerts that are capable of communicating with other videophones and most recently webcams.

An internal research and development department should be established by the independent disability equipment program provider to ensure that developments made internationally can be imported to Australia and made available to people who need them.

Funding sources

Question 20: Which is the most suitable funding option and why?

Question 21: How could people with disabilities' knowledge about the features available on phone, mobile phone and computer equipment be improved? Is their situation any different from people without disabilities in this regard?

The most suitable funding option would be for all communications service provider to fund the independent disability equipment program through a levy system administered by the Government. This means anyone providing telecommunications and internet services including mobile phone carriers and VoIP providers. This could be done by adding a levy to all communication charges incurred by anyone with communication service accounts or purchasing a prepaid service (as in the United States) with the levy passed on by the CSPS directly to a federal fund. In this way, everyone contributes to the program equally whether or not they have a disability and is in line with social inclusion practices.

The most effective way to provide information to the Deaf community is through Auslan. Captioning also is necessary for both Deaf and hard of hearing people. Therefore it is essential that any information relating to features available on video communications or other suitable technologies be provided in Auslan and captioned. In administering the Independent Disability Equipment Program funding, principles regarding language as set out in the UN CRPD Article 2 – Definitions should be enshrined in Government policy, and information regarding services should be made available in Auslan (either through websites or the outreach program).

Training should be made available to current and potential users of disability equipment to ensure that they can operate equipment effectively. A technology matching service should be used to identify which equipment would be best suited to an individual enabling them to participate in the fast and exciting world of communications equitably.

 

Document ID: 125610 | Last modified: 3 October 2013, 7:13am