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Deaf charity delighted by 'long overdue' BT voice-to-text app

Thursday, October 30th 2014 by Dean Reilly

The head of a deaf children’s charity has called on BT to improve accessibility for young people.

Susan Daniels, chief executive of the National Deaf Children’s Society, said advances have been made with Text Relay, a text to voice service run by BT, but there is still work to be done.

The relay service enables people with hearing loss or speech impairments to use a textphone to communicate, with messages read by an operator to the recipient and responses typed back to the caller.

Ms Daniels told Cable.co.uk: “The first text relay service was developed back in the 1970s. And the technological solutions like wi-fi, mobile handsets and so on have also been around for a long time. So it’s taken sustained pressure from the deaf organisations to get BT to use mobile devices as a solution.

“We’re delighted it’s now happening, that’s a positive step – but it’s a very long overdue step. It does mean that for someone like myself, when I’m out and about, I can make a text relay call without being stuck to a landline. So that is positive.”

However, Ms Daniels, who was awarded an OBE for her work with deaf children, warned that awareness of the service needs to be improved. She added: “The other issue for us, which is something we’re discussing with BT, is that because many young people and older people who have lost their hearing have never used a text relay service before, they don’t have a concept of how it works.

“Most people haven’t used a text relay service before. [Advertising] shouldn’t be aimed at people who have used the old text relay service and are quite committed to getting up to speed with the new service. We’ll get there ourselves anyway. The publicity needs to be aimed at those who have never done that before – it’s really important.

“It’s also really important to make sure that the information on the BT website is totally aimed at those people: people who’ve never used the service before and not people who already know how it works and are quite committed to making that transition from the old service to the new service.”

However public awareness isn’t the only aspect that needs improving, Ms Daniels said. “At the moment, Next Generation Text Relay uses typists to convey the speech of the hearing person. The KPI from Ofcom at the moment is 40 words a minute. Now you know that speech is 100, 120 words a minute. So the service is potentially quite slow.

“So we believe even if voice recognition isn’t sufficiently sophisticated yet to recognise every speaker, everywhere – and it clearly isn’t – there are opportunities with re-voicing.

This means if you were a text relay operator and you would re-speak what the person has just said, there are opportunities for that service to be speeded up with the commensurate savings for the length that the call takes.

“What we want is for BT, the provider at the moment, to look at ways to speed up the service and reduce their costs. At the moment, it’s as fast as the operator can type. We think that technological developments mean that there are opportunities to improve the speed of delivery and therefore reduce the cost.

“If someone’s speaking at 120 words a minute but the typist is typing at 40 words a minute, calls take four times as long, potentially, so costs go up for BT as the provider.

“In order to have a good revoicing environment, you need to have better soundproofing than they currently have in their relay centres, but we don’t think that’s a good enough response. It’s something they’re looking into, but we would love to see the whole service speeded up.”

A spokesperson for BT said: "BT is investigating the use of voice recognition generally but in our view the claims about the use of voice recognition are overstated.

"With regard to text relay services, there are many factors that determine the speed of translation, including the quality and the clarity of the line, accents, customer equipment and customers who have different needs, for example, the need to slow down text translation for deafblind customers.”

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