Senate debates

Tuesday, 3 December 2019


National Relay Service

8:27 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The National Relay Service allows deaf and hearing impaired Australians to make and receive telephone calls through the use of text relay services. The NRS can be accessed through different options, including CapTel, teletypewriters, SMS and internet relay. The Morrison government has decided to end access to CapTel for NRS users as of 1 February 2020.

Last sitting week I tabled a notice of motion which passed the Senate. The motion condemned the government for not consulting elderly CapTel users or their families before making a decision that would affect their welfare. The motion called on the government to stop imposing inferior communication options on CapTel users and instead consult with the community to find the best outcome. In Senate estimates, I asked about consultation and the changes. The official from the department said CapTel alternatives were 'a very comparable experience'. I then asked, 'Based on who's feedback is that?' The official said, 'That is from our own experience.' This was clarified by me, 'Your own, not the CapTel users?' and the answer was, 'No.' The Morrison government didn't even bother to get feedback from those who use CapTel. The average CapTel user is 80 years old. This is an easy to use text relay service that allows users to make telephone calls to family, friends and others, and also to access emergency services.

Many of these older NRS users are simply not confident about relying on the alternatives to CapTel, such as an iPad or smartphone, and many live alone. This means they don't have the support structures to acquire and learn how to use these new devices. Since estimates I have received emails, phone calls and messages from many, many Australians and their families who will be affected by the change from CapTel services, and I want to share with the Senate some of the concerns that I've heard from them.

Albert, from Melbourne, said that he is a veteran and that he is totally reliant on CapTel. The alternative that was offered to him is absolutely useless to him. Myra said that she cannot use a smart phone or iPad or computer. The CapTel phone helps her fight depression and not to feel isolated because of her deafness. She said she would not cope if it were taken away. It's her constant companion. She said that she has her independence back with CapTel. Christine is a profoundly hearing-impaired user of CapTel. She's had many sleepless nights of worry and is recovering from depression. The upheaval of the changes has triggered impacts to her mental health. Her daughters, who are also hearing impaired, use CapTel in their workplaces to communicate effectively and with discrete equality. Shirley said:

Many will go back to a world of silence, loss of independence, loneliness, particularly in the case of the elderly. It already costs the Federal Government millions of dollars a year for those with hearing loss: this move if it becomes reality on 31 January will cost the government many millions a year more.

Cancelling the service just doesn't make sense. Many of us just cannot understand why the government is so intent in forcing us onto an old, antiquated TTY system that is slow, cumbersome and would be no use in this society where an older, antiquated system can't survive.

Andrew wrote on behalf of his 96-year-old father, who is one of the last two remaining crew who served on HMAS Launceston during World War II and who lives independently. Andrew said that the disconnection of the CapTel service will force him from his independent living into an aged-care facility. Andrew is his only family, but he lives over 100 kilometres from his dad and the CapTel system is his regular lifeline to medical care and essential meal services. Andrew said that his dad struggles with smartphones, tablets, computers, keyboard entries, even his TV remote, and that he doesn't use his digital control oven or microwave. Andrew said:

Please wake up and own the difficulties that many aged people face and allow them the dignity to maintain a lifestyle and stop trying to unreasonably impose yours on them.

Mary rang my office from Queensland. She told me her 88-year-old mother had been drawing up a list of her loved ones to call before the end of January to say her final goodbyes while she still had her CapTel service. She said she and her mum have cried bucketloads over the past few months. She said the current government does not understand the value of CapTel to so many with hearing impairments and the huge impact of the axing of CapTel. Ian, on behalf of his 82 year old mum, Nancye, wrote that she has found the CapTel system to be very useful in retaining her independence, and that it seems to be a retrograde step to be using valuable public resources to go back to less usable technology. Jessica, who is just 34 years old, said:

One day we are all likely to know what it's like not to hear, even if only to some small degree. In one sense, everyone will join this club.

I'm described as a high achiever and learner, hold a Bachelor's degree and work as a professional in the public sector for over 10 years. Since birth, I have a severe-profound hearing impairment. Fitted with my first pair of hearing aids before I was one, I started my education before I was two—learning lip-read, speak and integrate into "mainstream" society. I am fortunate, and consider myself lucky. I am no stranger to seeking and using the right forms of assistive technologies and tools for different situations, of learning to use new technologies, of doing tasks differently, of educating people day in, day out.

I remember trialling the TTY in school—an amazing invention, for its time. But having since used CapTel, CapTel has significantly succeeded the TTY in use and practicality.

Using CapTel has helped mitigate one mainstream workplace barrier. I pick up the phone, push a button, listen and read, and voice my response. Callers need to know nothing about my personal circumstances—they just dial the same number sequence, just like for everyone else.

These are just a few of the comments that I have received. There are many, many more.

I would ask: why is the Morrison government so intent on upsetting our elderly citizens and those who live with disability, who have forged their way through life with a system that helps them, that they would snatch it away without any consultation? It's time that the Morrison government stood up and showed some respect for our deaf and hearing impaired communities and took very seriously their concerns about the axing of CapTel. I call on the Morrison government to consult widely with those who use the service and their families.