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They also serve who only sit and relay

[Originally published 1996 |
Updated here 1999.06.28]

Telephone users in all Canadian provinces and territories, all American states, and some foreign countries have access to free intermediary services that make it possible for deaf people and hearing people to communicate via telephone. They're called relay services, and they're about as well-known as the formula for Coca-Cola despite the fact that, in some areas, all residential subscribers pay for a relay service whether they use it or not.

If you can't hear and/or speak, a standard voice telephone is of little use. But, as thousands of net-surfers have demonstrated, you can attach a computer and a modem to an ordinary telephone line and send out textual and other messages. This is old news to deaf, hard-of-hearing, and "speech-impaired" people, who for decades have used special modem/keyboard/display/printer units, variously called TDDs (telecommunications devices for the deaf), TTYs (teletypewriters), or TTs (text telephones), to type messages back and forth in real time. Problem: Typically, the only owners of TDDs were people with sensory disabilities, their friends and family members, and social-service agencies. What if you wanted to call someone who does not own a TDD? What if that person wanted to call you?

The solution came in the form of relay services, which interpose a hearing operator between the TDD user and a hearing caller. The operator reads aloud what the TDD user types and types what the hearing person says. Relay services started out as sporadic volunteer operations with limited hours and restrictions on whom one could call, but starting in the late 1980s, telephone companies in Canada either were ordered by the CRTC to set up relay services (as in the case of Bell Canada) or did so voluntarily (as with AGT Ltd. in Alberta [now called Telus]). Local, long-distance, and international calls of any duration are all possible and are charged at rates no higher than calls placed without a relay operator.

Funding policies differ across the country. For example, the Bell Relay Service (BRS) is funded by a hidden levy on every residential subscriber's phone bill (slated to rise from 8¢ to 13¢ in 1996); Alberta's and British Columbia's respective relay services are paid for entirely by the phone company. The services are busy: The BC Tel Message Relay Centre in New Westminster handles 1,550 calls on an average day.

Canada has six relay services-- one for the Atlantic provinces, run by MT&T; another for Ontario and Quebec, run by Bell Canada; and one in each of the provinces west of Ontario, run by the respective local phone monopoly. The Yukon and Northwest Territories have access to southern provinces' relay services; however, the privately-published Canadian Telephone Directory for the Deaf, 1995 lists no TDD users in the Territories, though some government offices and the like are TDD-equipped. (After repeated attempts, only representatives from the Alberta and B.C. relay services responded to inquiries for this story. Officials from the Canadian Association of the Deaf also could not be reached for comments.)

While all relay operators are sworn to secrecy and no record of a call's contents is maintained, confidentiality is an issue. Michael Rodda, director of the Western Canadian Centre for Studies in Deafness and a professor of educational psychology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, can speak and listen on an amplified voice phone but also uses the Alberta relay service. "I know that some deaf people feel [concerned about confidentiality]. We don't, probably because as a professional centre we're used to issues of confidentiality.... It's always a concern if you're discussing personal medical matters through a third person. You can't really do much about that except to emphasize that the operators are professional and their job is on the line with confidentiality."

David Mason, an assistant professor of education at York University in Toronto who teaches courses in deaf education, is deaf and uses BRS daily to talk to hearing colleagues and students. Mason admits there are some highly personal topics he prefers not to discuss over the relay service even with assurances of confidentiality, "but generally I have been able to discuss almost a limitless range of topics as part of my professional work," such as "deep issues related to... where one of our students could be placed for teaching practice" or "making a deal for me to give a presentation in some workshops or conferences....

"With some people, with professionals, I've found it easy to spend even an hour talking back and forth through BRS. With others, chat seems to be shorter. I feel that BRS people have been doing a very good job in assisting communication between me and a wide variety of people, of whom some may not agree with my views and so on."

Gayle Remisch, a home daycare provider in London, Ontario, is a hearing person with many deaf friends. Her experience with BRS is less salutary. "I never had a good time with it and none of my deaf friends did either," she said in an interview. Remisch has asked deaf friends to keep transcripts of their conversations "and it was quite alarming that it wasn't verbatim, what I was saying, and they weren't using proper TDD etiquette, either.... I just always found it so frustrating due to the attitude of the operators. They always seemed to be too busy or not appropriately focused on what they were doing."