The service connects deaf, hard of hearing, and speech-impaired customers with a 24-hour interpreter to facilitate calls with family, friends, and organisations with whom they would otherwise struggle to communicate
This week, South African telco group Vodacom has launched a National Relay Service (NRS) in a bid to help build a more digitally inclusive society and support their deaf, hearing-impaired, and speech-impaired customers.
The NRS system works by connecting any Vodacom customer that uses South African sign language (SASL) to a specially trained SASL interpreter when they make a call to a third party that does not understand SASL. The interpreter then acts as a central link on the call, facilitating communication between the SASL user and the speaking recipient in real time.
In this way, the 24-hour NRS will allow customers that use SASL to make calls to friends, family, and external organisations on their own at any time, without needing to ask someone nearby to facilitate.
Vodacom says this will give its customers more autonomy when using connected devices and, crucially, will help support these customers in requesting help from emergency services.
The type of relay service delivered will be matched to the user’s individual needs, allowing them to choose between voice relay, text relay, live chat, captioned telephony relay, and video relay.
“The Specific Needs and NRS Centre offers an inclusive technology solution that advances our goal of empowering all South Africans and ensuring no one is left behind in the digitalisation journey. The launch of this system is another example of how Vodacom is delivering on its purpose to connect for a better future,” said Takalani Netshitenzhe, Executive Director of External Affairs for Vodacom South Africa.
The idea of the NRS itself is not overly novel – for example, apps like Be My Eyes, which connects blind and visually impaired people to sighted volunteers, have existed for almost a decade now – but this is one of few examples of mobile operators incorporating such technology directly into their own service offerings.
It should be noted that Vodacom’s efforts to improve digital inclusion within the telecoms industry date back to at least 2004, when the operator launched its Specific Needs initiative, aimed at overcoming barriers to communication for customers with disabilities.
Since then, various solutions have been developed as part of the programme, including devices designed for the visually impaired, text-based emergency services for deaf and hard-of-hearing customers, and a dedicated call centre for disabled customers.
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