Culturally Deaf, oral deaf, deafened, and hard of hearing Canadians have been waiting for Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to announce a decision for development, funding and implementation of national bilingual Video Relay Services (VRS). Given that the preferred primary language of many Deaf and hard of hearing Canadians is visual, VRS gives them access to telecommunication services and enables them to engage in communication in a manner that is functionally equivalent to other telephone customers.
All Canadians, including Deaf people and people with hearing loss, are entitled to expect high quality communication technology improvements, such as VRS. CHS has urged CRTC to make VRS a mandated service by ensuring funds for national bilingual VRS services, VRS research and development, and ensuring availability of qualified sign language interpreters in both American Sign Language (ASL) and la langue des signes québécoise (LSQ). CHS continues to support communication technology innovation and the importance of establishing a national bilingual VRS is something we do not want CRTC to overlook.
Deaf and hard of hearing people gain access to telecommunication services through the provision of relay services; however, current relay services in Canada have failed to keep pace with technological advancements. Canada is one of only two countries in the G8 that does not have VRS. There are Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand that offer VRS.
The Canadian Hearing Society (CHS) Position on the Issue
The CRTC must ensure that video relay services are readily available across Canada, to every extent possible and in the most effective and efficient manner.
The CRTC must not discourage or hinder the development, funding and implementation of an improved and effective visual communication technology that provides functionally equal access to the telephone and high speed internet system.
CHS strongly supports the implementation of a CRTC Access Advisory Committee consisting of key stakeholders, including VRS customers from across Canada, that would have strong oversight on all facets of VRS operations. The committee will work in collaboration with the CRTC and provide consultation to design a national bilingual VRS which meets the needs of consumers and is cost effective. This committee would ensure that there is high quality service, continuous improvement in services, education and outreach, and maintain the functional equivalency of telecommunications access to the level that hearing customers take for granted.
We strongly urge the CRTC to make an informed decision in a timely manner on the issues such as:
Functionally equivalent access to telecommunication services for deaf and hard of hearing consumers;
Establishing a VRS rate methodology which encompasses transparency in the rate setting process and access to accurate cost data;
Review of current relay funding mechanisms (e.g. surcharges) to determine implementation of a national funding mechanism that ensures high quality VRS
Establishment of a CRTC Access Advisory Committee
The Prevalence of Hearing Loss
Almost 25% of adult Canadians report having some hearing loss, although closer to 10% of people would actually identify themselves as culturally Deaf, oral deaf, deafened, or hard of hearing.
Terms Key to Understanding the Issue
Video Relay Services (VRS) is a video telecommunication service that allows culturally Deaf, oral deaf, deafened and hard of hearing individuals to communicate over the Internet using video enabled technologies (e.g. video telephones and similar technologies) with hearing people in real-time, via a signed language-spoken language interpreter.
The Rationale for CHS’s Position
Without equal access, there can be no equal opportunity, and without equal opportunity, a fundamental right of Canadian citizenship, and democracy itself, is denied. Culturally Deaf, oral deaf, deafened, and hard of hearing Canadians have the right to be able to engage in communication in a manner that is functionally equivalent to other telephone customers. In addition to clear moral and ethical grounds, existing policies, legislation, significant legal decisions, and independent research reports comprise a strong precedence to support CHS’s position. In brief, they are as follows :
The Government of Canada has ratified the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities including Article 9 on Accessibility and the rights of persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life: “Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications, including information and communications technologies and systems, and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and in rural areas.”
In other words, the Government of Canada in signing the UN Convention would clearly support CRTC’s decision to make VRS a mandated national service that includes both American Sign Language (ASL)-English and la langue des signes québécoise (LSQ)-French VRS and community interpreting services.
The Canadian Telecommunications Policy (section 7) in the Telecommunications Act (1993) clearly states the objectives of the policy:
It is hereby affirmed that telecommunications performs an essential role in the maintenance of Canada’s identity and sovereignty and that the Canadian telecommunications policy has as its objectives
- to facilitate the orderly development throughout Canada of a telecommunications system that serves to safeguard, enrich and strengthen the social and economic fabric of Canada and its regions;
- to render reliable and affordable telecommunications services of high quality accessible to Canadians in both urban and rural areas in all regions of Canada;
- to enhance the efficiency and competitiveness, at the national and international levels, of Canadian telecommunications;
- to promote the ownership and control of Canadian carriers by Canadians;
- to promote the use of Canadian transmission facilities for telecommunications within Canada and between Canada and points outside Canada;
- to foster increased reliance on market forces for the provision of telecommunications services and to ensure that regulation, where required, is efficient and effective;
- to stimulate research and development in Canada in the field of telecommunications and to encourage innovation in the provision of telecommunications services;
- to respond to the economic and social requirements of users of telecommunications services; and
- to contribute to the protection of the privacy of persons.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms : The Charter is a bill of rights entrenched in the Constitution of Canada. The Charter protects the political and civil rights of all Canadians, and supersedes all federal and provincial legislation including human rights codes. The Charter is explicit in its provision for sign language interpreting services during any proceeding in which Deaf Canadians are involved (see Section 14 and 15(1).)
Canadian Association of the Deaf, et al. v. Her Majesty the Queen : This most recent Federal Court of Canada decision requires that all Federal Government programs, offices and services provide sign language interpreting services "upon request." The ruling makes explicit the right of access to government.
United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities  Canada and Eighty other Member States and the European Community signed this landmark new convention at the United Nations in March 2007. Canada ratified this treaty in March 2010. The treaty aims to eradicate discrimination against persons with disabilities in all areas of life including employment, education, health services, transportation and access to justice. The Convention requires States Parties to acknowledge sign language, promote the linguistic identity of the Deaf community, and provide sign language interpreters among other issues relating to people who are Deaf.
Recent VRS trial and feasibility study by Telus and Bell, respectively, support the concept of a national Video Relay Service. According to the Bell VRS Feasibility Study (April 2012), “VRS is highly feasible…with thoughtful planning it will be possible to establish an affordable and sustainable VRS that offers all Canadians a flexible and quality video relay service (Section: Possible VRS Models, Mission Consulting, p. 85). In the Telus, Final Report-Telus Video Relay Service Trial (March 2012), the report states, “VRS services in Canada and the services would provide meaningful and lasting benefits to Canadians” (p.21).
Frequently Asked Questions
When will CRTC make a decision to develop and implement national VRS services?
At the date that this paper was approved by the CHS Board of Directors, CRTC has not made a decision as to funding and implementation and requested further input from the Telus VRS trial, Bell Canada VRS Feasibility Study Project and independent research study commissioned by CRTC. Pending review of these projects, there is no explicit timeline announced by the CRTC for the implementation of VRS services nationally.
Approved by the CHS Board of Directors September 22, 2012