Shirley Edwards was thrown into a world of confusion and frustration when she began losing her hearing in her 30s.
- The Federal Government wants to cut NRS funding by more than $10 million a year
- Senate estimates has heard the new tender process failed to deliver value for money
- Deaf Services Queensland said one in six Australians were affected by hearing loss
The Brisbane woman, who has two cochlear implants, is able to handle phone calls on her own thanks to a service that converts conversations into text for people with hearing difficulties.
But there are growing questions over the future of the National Relay Service (NRS), which provides the translations, with the Federal Government planning to cap funding for the service at two thirds of its current cost.
Mrs Edwards is among more than 4,000 people around Australia, largely hearing-impaired or elderly, who rely on CapTel handsets to communicate on the phone.
The handset operates like a regular phone, except it connects to an NRS operator who translates the conversation and sends it back as text within seconds.
“It takes away the isolation and gives me a lot of independence,” she said.
“I don’t have to rely on people to make my phone calls for me.”
A Senate estimates hearing in February was told it cost more than $31 million to provide the NRS in the 2017/18 financial year and $32 million in 2016/17.
With the contract now up for renewal, the Federal Government has called for tenders capped at $22 million a year.
But Senate estimates heard the process had “failed to deliver a value-for-money proposition”, resulting in the current contracts being extended until January 31 next year.
Industry figures have told the ABC $22 million would not be enough to meet growing demand and they feared services would be compromised.
The Australian Communication Exchange, a not-for-profit organisation, currently holds the Commonwealth contract to deliver the “relay service component” of the National Relay Service.
Tony Bennetts from Accesscomm, which distributes the CapTel phones, said the uncertainty was a concern.
“We do know from the Senate estimates that there’s an extension of the National Relay Service until January 2020, but we’re not sure what’s happening after that,” he said.
“We have an ageing population, so the numbers are going to increase as time goes by, so limiting funding for the service creates some concern.”
Deaf Services Queensland chief executive Brett Casey said the service was vital, with figures showing one in six Australians were impacted by hearing loss.
“When this cap does occur … what restriction is that going to place on the community?” he said.
“Will the cap require a reduction in hours and the availability of the NRS, which is currently 24/7?”
He said the NRS already offered a video relay service that was only available during business hours.
In a statement, a Communication Department spokesman said the funding cap was put in place by the Labor government in 2013.
He said the Federal Government has been seeking the “most effective, efficient and economical NRS that can be provided and is looking at all service options that will fulfil the requirements of the NRS”.
Mrs Edwards said if she lost access to her phone service it would be like being “plunged back into isolation”.
Topics: hearing, federal-parliament, budget, telecommunications, brisbane-4000, qld, act
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