There have been significant advances in communications technology for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing since the introduction of text phones. Yet, there are still some issues to overcome if we are to achieve true equal and effective communications for all.
Today, people who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing are able to communicate with each other and people in the hearing community more effectively thanks to innovative communications applications, such as online learning platforms that teach interested parties how to speak sign-language and use sign-language translation tools. However, people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing often encounter barriers due to the lack of interoperability in communications software, an issue that the US government is working to address.
The US government currently provides free video and telecommunications relay services to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, allowing them to access key government services via phone. These include Internet Protocol Captioned Telecommunications Service (CTS), Internet Protocol Relay Service, Text Telecommunications Relay Service, and Video Relay Service (VRS) that allows a deaf or hard of hearing person to make a telephone call to a hearing user by routing the call through a sign language interpreter.
However, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the US government agency for communications, noted that a lack of interoperability between propriety systems meant that deaf and hard of hearing users would often encounter major issues, including an inability to switch providers, call each other directly, or leave video mail messages, leading to increased overall costs as well as user frustration. They determined that they could reduce the cost of VRS by making a standards based, open-source software accessible for free, available around the world for anyone to use and improve.
Starting from May 2016, the Accessible Communications for Everyone (ACE) software will enable VRS users to communicate directly with each other. Reaching VRS and Telecommunications Relay Service services using their existing mobile phones (Android and iOS) and computers (Windows and Mac OSX), users will be able to engage in simultaneous real-time video, text and voice communications. To achieve this, ACE will use ITU and IETF standards SIP, T.140, H.263, H.264, Open H. 264, and H.265.
The FCC has committed to updating code to operate with newly released operating systems, meaning that developers around the world will be able to design reliable communications applications based on ACE that will work with widely available consumer devices, now and in the future.
This solution could mean global relay services for all, and is already linked with Sweden, France and other European countries.
As the software will be open source, ACE can be modified to work for other disabled populations; the possibilities are endless. One modification already in the works is Video Remote Assistance (VRA) which is designed to assist blind individuals. It sends real-time video to the next available visual interpreter in a call center who then tells the blind user what the phone’s camera is seeing. This allows a blind user to get help reading documents or navigating inside a new building.
We live in a great era of communication. The ability to use fast broadband digital networks and combine powerful computer processing with efficient battery powered devices makes deploying new solutions for the disabled far less costly.
This blog is adapted from Peter Hayes’ speech at ITU Headquarters in Geneva on 16 September.
Peter Hayes is the Founder and CEO of VTCSecure, an international technology company that creates and implements innovative forms of telecommunication for members of the disabled community. He has 15 years of ICT experience, and endeavors to ensure equal and accessible communication for all.