On the highway one night, your tires start slipping, your car fishtails, and you go into a ditch. When you regain consciousness, you realize you’re trapped. What do you do first? Call 911, of course.
For those who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech-impaired, the situation is an even bigger nightmare. Without an easy way of communicating with emergency services, they have limited options. They can send text messages to friends and hope one calls the police, or wait for another driver to help them.
One technology can make this situation—and all sorts of interactions most people take for granted—much easier for hearing-impaired persons. It’s called real-time text, and it could be coming to your cellphone, if its advocates are successful.
Real-time text, or RTT, can be done on a personal computer or a mobile phone. Two conversation boxes are displayed on-screen, one for each user. As one person types a message, the other sees the words forming, letter by letter, in one text box. In the second box, she can write responses, interrupt, or ask questions simultaneously. In this way, real-time text is more dynamic and flexible than instant messaging or texting.
“I think it’s an absolutely excellent idea,” Jane Dyson, spokesperson for the B.C. Coalition of People With Disabilities, said of real-time text. “This technology has huge implications for the independence of deaf people and hearing-impaired people. I also think it’s a great security device.”
Dyson added by phone, “This technology could be great on so many levels, from the bigger issues of security and being able to contact someone if you’re in an emergency, to the day-to-day things that all work together to promote independence.”
For Arnoud van Wijk, disabilities project coordinator for the Internet Society, a great advantage of real-time text is that besides helping deaf people communicate with each other, it enables them to interact more with the rest of society.
“The best thing is that RTT is not limited to deaf and hard-of-hearing users,” said van Wijk, who is deaf, by e-mail. “There is no communication barrier between deaf and nondeaf when using text.”
Founded in 1992, the Internet Society is a Virginia–based nonprofit organization that works to ensure the open development and use of the Net. In keeping with its mandate to increase accessibility, the society launched the Real-Time Text Taskforce in July 2008. The task force aims to make real-time text available worldwide and all of its applications compatible with each other.
According to Arthur Rendall, vice president of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association’s Hamilton, Ontario, branch, real-time text makes it possible for people with hearing impairments to participate in natural, direct interactions that are very much like spoken conversations. The Georgia Straight interviewed Rendall, who is deaf, through real-time text, using a Web-based prototype.
“RTT to me is amazing,” he typed. “You have the ability to roam with your handheld device anywhere.”
Real-time text also has the potential to benefit those without hearing or speech impairments. It could be used in settings where talking is impractical, including noisy environments, or instead of an expensive long-distance telephone conversation.
The networking technology behind real-time text is similar to that used for Internet-based telephone systems like Skype, and it is already being used in some European countries—including Denmark, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. But wireless carriers have been hesitant to adopt it in Canada. Canadian providers don’t offer mobile phones with real-time text capability, but third-party software is available for BlackBerrys and other smartphones. As well, Canadian companies don’t offer data-only packages; if you’re using a device, they assume you’re talking on it.
Rendall said he has spoken to various wireless carriers about real-time text being made available to all Canadians. According to Rendall, company officials told him that, while the technology holds promise, they are hampered by implementation costs.
As a result, Rendall has decided to approach the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in an attempt to convince the regulatory agency that real-time text is needed by hearing-impaired cellphone users. The CRTC could potentially make it mandatory for wireless carriers to provide RTT. Rendall also wants an area code set up for deaf and hard-of-hearing people that would identify them as a user group that requires unique telephone service.
Raymond Kruyer, chief executive officer of 4C Telecom—a company that provides real-time text services in the Netherlands—said there’s little financial incentive for telecommunications companies to serve the niche market of the hearing-impaired.
Kruyer claimed that many companies don’t really understand the needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing customers, and sometimes even confuse their needs with those of blind people. He said that, considering the intelligence, persistence, and drive of the deaf community, he thinks this is a huge disservice to society.
“Having a conversation in real time is such an incentive for deaf people to engage in text communication,” Kruyer said by phone. “It’s really all about participation and being part of the world.”