TalkByText: a telephone call for people with hearing or speech impairments

Peter Abrahams

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Published: 13th January, 2009
Content Copyright © 2009 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

Enterprises and organisations of all shapes and sizes must be able to communicate effectively with their clients to survive. Technology, in particular the web, has greatly increased the number of options available for such communications. Very nearly as a by-product the web has improved the ability of organisations to communicate with people with disabilities. People with vision impairments can now read electronic documents that used to only be available in inaccessible printed format. People with mobility problems can now get all the information delivered to their desk rather than having to go to the organisation to be provided with the information. People with hearing impairments can now read information rather than having to discuss it with someone who was unable to communicate with them with sign language.

However, the web is not the right solution for all levels of communication. There are times when communicating directly with another human being is what is really needed:

  • complex product selection where a series of questions and answers is the only way to get to the correct solution.
  • problem diagnosis and resolution.
  • assistance with the use of some product or process.

The telephone connected to a call centre is the typical way of resolving this sort of issue. It is a convenient and accessible solution for most people including most people with disabilities. However, people with hearing impairments, or speech impediments, are excluded from this sort or help. E-mail and SMS can provide a partial solution but they cannot be considered equivalent to, or as effective as, a telephone connection.

A videophone link with an operator who can sign might be considered the ideal solution. But in reality the lack of the requisite technology and operators who can sign means that this is only practical in very specialised circumstances. It also does not meet the needs of hard of hearing people who do not use sign language and find text the most accessible medium.

The textphone, also known as Minicom, has been the standard solution in Europe and in America they use TTY. These technologies provide a character-by-character synchronous communication, which means that when a user types a character at one end it is immediately visible at the other. This gives a much more natural flow of communication without the inevitable delays inherent in technologies such as SMS and instant messaging. It even allows the recipient to interrupt by typing at the same time as they are still receiving a message. Thus providing a text equivalent of a telephone conversation.

The textphone solution has been around for a long time and has been showing its age. It uses specialised technology at both ends, runs over a very slow telecommunication channels, is not mobile and is clunky to use in comparison to PCs and mobile phones.

The Royal National Institute for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People (RNID) in the UK has created an updated version of the solution called TalkByText, that replaces the specialised hardware with programs that run on PCs, the Web, or mobile phones. TalkByText uses Text over IP (ToIP) to enable the text to flow over the same IP network as data, voice and video. It comes in four different editions.

The Business Edition allows any PC user in an enterprise to contact any textphone or TalkByText user, either internally in the organisation or externally. It uses the latest IP networks for communications, and is controlled by a central server in the organisation. The server converts from IP to the older textphone networks when necessary.

The Web Edition provides a browser interface. This can be useful for a deaf person when they are travelling as they can use it from any Internet cafe or similar environment. It is also useful for the occasional user, such as myself, who needs to be able to contact a deaf relative, friend or business acquaintance. It can also be used by people living abroad as they can register with RNID and then use the web to communicate with users in the UK. The only limitation is that the user can only initiate calls but cannot receive incoming calls.

The Mobile Edition runs on mobile phones such as the Nokia 9500. This complements the already heavy use of SMS by many deaf people; and enables them to have a bi-directional synchronised mobile conversation when appropriate.

The latest addition to the TalkByText family is the Home Edition. This is a small PC application that provides greater functionality than the Web Edition; in particular an integrated address book and the ability to receive calls. This solution can be used to replace the textphone hardware. As it uses the Internet, calls to other Home, or Business, Edition users are free.

I believe the TalkByText should be installed in every significant organisation. It is not complex or expensive and will enable anyone inside the organisation to carry on a normal business conversation with anyone who can benefit from using a textphone solution. I also think that organisations should consider including a portal to their TalkBy Text Business Edition in the website. This would enable the user to contact the organisation immediately if they required some assistance related to their current web visit. Any organisation providing such an integrated approach would show great respect for their deaf and speech impaired users; this should reflect their corporate social responsibility to reach out to their full potential user community.

Whenever I look at technology specially developed for people with disabilities I asked the question "has this got a wider application?"; in this case I feel sure that some instant message users would appreciate the greater immediacy of TalkByText. So I think that providers of instant messaging technology should integrate the basic technology into their offerings. The Voice Over IP providers might also interested in integrating this into their solution; it could bring in a new cohort of users and provide some additional functionality to the existing users. This service might just support connection between two Voice Over IP users but ideally it would include break-out server to enable VoIP to older technologies.

The other extension of the technology is outside the UK; I understand that the RNID is actively working with their sister organisations around the world to help them develop similar solutions in their countries.

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