Minister for Communications and the Arts, in response to an Australian Sign Language video question on the ABC’s Q and A program last night, pledged that Australians who are deaf, deafblind, hearing and/or speech impaired will have the service they need when the Government implements the next National Relay Service (NRS) contract.
The question, submitted by Deaf Australia CEO Kyle Miers, on behalf of coalition of NRS user organisations, asked Minister Fifield how the government would be able to assure the NRS community that no services would be cut back given that the current cost of providing the NRS is in excess of $32 million per annum and the recently released NRS request for tender has capped the service funding at $22 million per annum for the next 3 years. Questioning how a 30% reduction in funding can ensure that the services will continue on a 24/7 basis.
While Minister Fifield stated that there are new and merging mainstream technologies that many NRS users may be able to access instead of relying on the NRS, Mr Miers has today said, “People with disability are already using mainstream technologies as a first choice”, adding “the high usage of NRS services indicates that there are no adequate mainstream services suitable for many NRS users’. The NRS service with the highest take-up is captioned telephony where a hard-of-hearing person speaks their part of the conversation and reads the text of the other person’s response in addition to using their residual hearing. Mr Miers pointed out that there is no mainstream equivalent service for these NRS users and that few alternative technologies provide the real-time equivalence of a phone call.
Mr Miers also said that Minister Fifield incorrectly stated that the NRS has always been funded at $22 million per annum. “The $22 million funding cap was introduced in the current contract. Previously, the NRS was funded on a cost-recovery basis funded by the NRS levy impost on Telecommunications providers” said Mr Miers, noting that the Government has covered the funding shortfall in part from a drastic reduction in the NRS outreach service. Mr Miers asserts that “The NRS, as an essential communications bridge for many Australians with disability, needs to be provided on a cost-recovery basis and not capped at some arbitrary amount”.
In a follow-up question on the Q and A program Mr Miers asked Minister Fifield if he would pledge on National television that NRS users would not be worse -off as a result of the current tender process. The Minister answered in the affirmative, pledging that NRS users would have the service they need.
Mr Miers and the NRS community will be pressing the Government to ensure that it delivers on the Ministers pledge.