18 May 2015
Victorian woman Michelle Stevens today became the first deafblind Australian to make a telephone call.
Ms Stevens had an historic chat with her sister Carol using an innovative caption-to-braille service being trialled in Australia for the first time in the world.
The new technology pairs a CapTel (captioned telephone) handset with a braille display, allowing people who are deaf and have low/no vision to speak on the phone and read the response.
Ms Stevens, whose vision was damaged when she was born prematurely and her hearing lost due to chronic ear infections, said it’s very exciting.
“Having phone conversations with friends and calling my university - using my voice - will be fantastic,” Ms Stevens said.
“The deafblind community will find it really valuable, especially the many older blind people who are losing their hearing; I think it will make a huge difference to their lives and save a lot of time.”
Braille CapTel is being trialled in three states by the national non-profit organisation Conexu, which promotes communications technology for deaf, hard of hearing and speech impaired people.
The six-month trial was launched in Sydney today by the Federal Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications Paul Fletcher.
“This new technology has the potential to provide a life-changing experience for deafblind Australians by allowing them to connect and communicate in a way which has never been available before now,” Mr Fletcher said.
“I’d like to congratulate the Conexu Foundation for trialling this world-first technology in Australia.”
Five deafblind people in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland have been provided with a CapTel handset and braille display, costing approximately $3300, as well as training and ongoing outreach support by Conexu.
Conexu Chief Strategy Officer Rachel McKay said the trial aimed to prove that braille CapTel could be delivered effectively and improve quality-of-life.
“Most people take the phone for granted but hundreds of thousands of Australians do not have an equivalent service so a chat with friends and family or making appointments is a painfully slow process,” Ms McKay said.
“As our community ages, more and more people are losing their sight and hearing, which can leave them feeling isolated.
“This promises to be an easy way to keep people connected.”
The Australian trial is being mirrored in the United States by CapTel developer Ultratec.
Ultratec Director Christopher Engelke said the response to the technology had been terrific.
“There has been a great deal of interest from organisations such as the Helen Keller School and the US Department of Veteran Affairs,” Mr Engelke said.
“The feedback and lessons we get from the Australian trial will help to improve and advance the text communication services that Ultratec develops.”
Non-profit group Able Australia is helping to train the Australian trial participants to use the technology.
“Enabling deafblind people to use the telephone where they can directly talk to family, friends and others via a braille CapTel service will increase their independence and confidence to make more phone calls,” said Carla Anderson, Able Australia’s Deafblind Services Manager.
“We are pleased to partner with Conexu in this important trial.”