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A bridge connecting hearing-impaired people with those who can hear


A telephone relay service connecting hearing impaired people to people who can hear, via telephone, was launched as a public infrastructure service on July 1. To commemorate this, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication, and the Japanese Foundation Telephone Relay Service, which provides such telephone relay services, co-sponsored the "Telephone Relay Service Initiation Ceremony" on the same day in an online event. At the beginning of the ceremony, Naoki Onuma, the Chairman of the Japan Foundation Telephone Relay Service, provided an opening address. After that, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga delivered an online video congratulatory address. Next, Mr. Ryouta Takeda, Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications, and Mr. Hiroshi Yamamoto, Parliamentary Senior Vice-Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare, addressed the audience. The first call for this service was made between Minister Takeda and service users. At 10:30 am, Chairman Onuma announced the launch of the telephone relay service.

As the service was launched as public infrastructure, social participation and creating safer lives for people with visual impairment will be promoted. The service is expected to yield positive benefits. Representatives of the Telecommunications Carriers Association, the Nippon Foundation, the Japanese Federation of the Deaf, and the All Japan Association of Hard of Hearing and Late-Deafened People (Zennancho), which are grant organizations that collect subsidies from telephone carriers and deliver them to service providers, addressed the audience at the ceremony. Professor Yoshinori Sakai (Professor Emeritus, Tokyo Institute of Technology) served as a moderator for presentations. He received congratulatory remarks from the organization representatives.

The telephone relay service is a communication service for people with hearing or speech impediments where an interpreter operator facilitates communication between the hearing impaired and non-hearing-impaired participants. The operator communicates with the hearing-impaired persons through the internet via videocall using sign language or text chat, and with non-hearing-impaired persons via a telephone line, to facilitate communication between the two parties. Calling charges are applicable for using the service. Additionally, support is provided through subsidies paid by the telephone provider based on Japanese law. The telephone provider then receives payment from the telephone user.

Since it is difficult for people with hearing impairment to make telephone calls without assistance, they are unable to use the telephone for daily communications, administrative procedures, in the workplace, and quickly request help in the event of an emergency, making it difficult for them to lead independent lives. As a solution to such problems, a telephone relay service was launched by private companies in 2002 in Japan. However, feasibility issues did not result in its popularization despite the intended business advantages.

Against this background, the Nippon Foundation launched a telephone relay service project in 2013, and the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare has provided financial support to information facilities which have implemented telephone relay services since 2017. Various problems were identified through this model project while the social demand for a telephone relay service also increased. Consequently, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications and the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare co-sponsored an expert committee to study various issues for the implementation of a telephone relay service as public infrastructure. The report was published ("Towards the Realization of a Telephone Relay Service as Public Infrastructure" on December 6, 2019). Subsequently, the Act on Facilitating the Use of Telephones by the Hearing Impaired, etc. (Act No. 53 of 2020) was enacted and effected after deliberations by the National Diet, on December 1, 2020, when this service was launched. Currently, the service is provided as a public infrastructure and is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It can be connected to emergency call centers such as 110 and can even be used by people who can hear. Registration is required to use the service, and the Nippon Foundation Telephone Relay Service is expected to register approximately 14,000 users in 2021 and approximately 30,000 by 2026.

This article has been translated by JST with permission from The Science News Ltd.( Unauthorized reproduction of the article and photographs is prohibited.

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