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June 2024

Summary and outcomes of telecoms conference

On 4 November 2015 the UK Council on Deafness hosted the conference ‘Fair exchange: developments in telecommunication for people who are deaf or have a hearing loss’.

The aim of the conference was to

  1. celebrate the advances that had been made in advanced telephony services, including video relay services (VRS); and
  2. learn more about what needed to be done next.


Following the conference

  • we will work with the Shadow Minister for Disabled People, Lord Bruce and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, to secure a government review of access to telecommunication via relay services;
  • develop a common set of requirements for telecommunication, audit them against what is available and decide what needs to be done; and
  • continue to develop relationships with organisations outside of the deafness and hearing loss sector as part of work following the statement of common purpose on deafness and hearing loss.

Keynote address: Lord Bruce of Bennachie

The conference opened with a keynote address from Lord Bruce of Bennachie, who had recently entered the House of Lords a peer after being the MP for Gordon from 1983 to 2015. He established the All Party Parliamentary Group on Deafness and was its chair until 2014.

Lord Bruce talked about

  • the need for British Sign Language (BSL) to be recognised as an official minority language alongside other UK languages;
  • the role of the Lords in keeping a check on the government on behalf of the most vulnerable, citing the vote on tax credits; and
  • the need for government policy to catch up with developments in technology.

Lord Bruce looked forward to working with the sector on these and other issues.

The difference telecommunications services make

John Maidens (managing director, Interpreter Now), Lorraine Gailey (chief executive, Hearing Link) and John Trett (a deaf person and Hearing Link volunteer) spoke about the difference advances in technology had made to people who are deaf or have a hearing loss. In particular, John Trett explained how he uses a mix of aids and adapts them to his specific needs, such as linking his hearing aids and mobile phone.

NGTR: before and after

Chris Taylor (director of consumer policy, Ofcom) explained the results of Ofcom research into the use of the Next Generation Text Relay service. His presentation is available below.

contactScotland: the first eight months

Angela Bonomy (specialist adviser, Scottish Government) spoke about the Scottish Government’s pilot of access to its services via video relay services, contactScotland. Her presentation is available below.

The story of Next Generation Text Relay

Colin Lees (chief information officer, BT Business) spoke about BTs development and introduction of NGTR. His presentation is available below.

Take up of services and direction of travel

Five VRS providers spoke about the take up of their services and what they have planned for the future. They were

    • Craig Crowley (chief executive, Action Deafness);
    • Joel Kellhoffer (managing director, SignLive);
    • John Maidens (managing director, Interpreter Now);
    • Sean Nicholson (chief executive officer, SignSolutions); and
    • Jeff McWhinney (founder and chairman, SignVideo).

Craig, Joel, John and Sean made presentations, which are available below. Jeff spoke about the need for secure platforms that provide a service which enables clear communication, and the issue of making sure social calls can be made via VRS at no additional cost to the sign language user.

The importance of registration

Kate Price (registration service manager, NRCPD) spoke about the importance of the registration of sign language interpreters and other communication and language professionals, whether they are used face-to-face or via a telecommunications service. Her presentation is available below.

Keynote address: Shadow Minister for Disabled People, Debbie Abrahams MP

Debbie Abrahams MP was appointed to the post of Shadow Minister for Disabled People in September. She had been MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth since January 2011. She was previously a member of the Work & Pensions Select Committee, and PPS to Andy Burnham, the Shadow Health Secretary. She was co-Chair of the APPG on Dementia and the first MP to have trained as a Dementia Friends Champion.

Debbie spoke about the need to make sure everyone had equal access to telecommunication services. In particular, she was concerned about the lack of access to emergency services and the small number of businesses providing access via VRS.

Debbie agreed to ask the government to review access via video relay services. She was also considering how BSL could be supported and promoted across the UK, following the passing of the BSL (Scotland) Act.

Speech recognition technology

Patrick Tarpey (senior consumer affairs manager, Ofcom) spoke about developments in speech recognition technology. His presentation is available below.

Hopes for the future

Lorraine Gailey and John Trett returned to speak about the hopes people who are deaf or have a hearing loss have for developments in telecommunication.

Lorraine reflected on the fact speech recognition technology had improved beyond what anyone expected, and felt further development would bring many benefits. John hoped for a mobile phone that would act as a loop and interact directly with his hearing aids and other aids. He also said there needed to be more awareness of loops so they were set up correctly and used by people with hearing aids.

The story from Sweden

Thor Nielsen (vice president of global marketing and sales, nWise AB)introduced a recorded video interview with a sign language user who had benefited from VRS. It had enabled him to develop his career and access services in his personal life, such as when his car broke down. His presentation is available below.

Summing up: Where we were, where we are and where we need to be going

Christopher Jones (chair, UK Council on Deafness Deaf Access to Communications special interest group) summed up the main points of the day and indicated what we thought needed to be done.

It had been four years since the Department for Culture Media and Sport held a meeting about VRS, yet only a handful of companies were providing access that way. Christopher would therefore write to the Department, on behalf of UK Council on Deafness members, to ask for a review of the captioned telephone, text, and video relay market. A review would provide information that would help us deal with the issue of how functional equivalence could be provided at no additional cost to the sign language user.

Christopher would also take Lord Bruce up on his offer to raise the issue in the House of Lords. He felt there should be legislation to regulate VRS.

Christopher cited the service in Australia, which was funded by a levy imposed by the government on eligible telecommunications providers. The service was available across the country, Monday to Friday, 7am-6pm (AEST time) except for national public holidays. And in New Zealand t was available Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm, except for public holidays.

Panel: What’s needed?

The five VRS providers and Colin Lees returned to the stage to answer questions from delegates. The main points were

  • the deafness and hearing loss sector should work more with organisations, such as Age UK, that can help us achieve our objectives;
  • we should be working towards the concept of Total Conversation;
  • we need to involve more younger people when discussing developments in technology and telecommunication;
  • the deafness and hearing loss sector should develop a common set of requirements for telecommunication, audit them against what is available and decide what needs to be done;
  • Ofcom had published guidance saying
    • if a service provider refused a VRS call it would likely be a breach of the Equality Act; and
    • taking a VRS call would not be a breach of the Data Protection Act.