CapTel service not available for Betty Levy

Betty Levy's vital link to the outside world is in jeopardy.

The 103-year-old Order of Australia recipient from Springwood is deaf and heavily reliant on a captioned phone service that translates voice to text, a service the federal government will axe from February 1 next year after cutbacks to the tender process of $8 million annually.

Phone is a lifeline: Betty and Chris Levy. Here on her 103rd birthday at Bucklands Retirement Village in Springwood. Betty is deaf so relies on being able to read the good wishes on her CapTel phone, set to be cancelled early next year. She received an Order of Australia for services to the Red Cross.

Phone is a lifeline: Betty and Chris Levy. Here on her 103rd birthday at Bucklands Retirement Village in Springwood. Betty is deaf so relies on being able to read the good wishes on her CapTel phone, set to be cancelled early next year. She received an Order of Australia for services to the Red Cross.

CapTel, the captioned telephone handset used by 4000 Australians who are deaf or hard of hearing to link into the National Relay Service, will not be supported when a new provider takes over. The service is provided by Australian Communication Exchange, through an exclusive licensing deal. Earlier this year the government signed a three-year deal with a different provider.

"It's a dreadful thing," Betty Levy told the Gazette. "My telephone is my lifeline as with many elderly people. It's very wrong. I hope they have some sense ... I'd be horrified to be left without it".

Mrs Levy's son, Chris who lives in Sydney, said the current service enables his mum to press one button and then within 15 seconds his voice is translated to five or more lines of text. It's the way he, his brother, the grandchildren and great grand-children can stay in regular contact. Mrs Levy also uses the phone to call her audiologist, her dentist, and other medical matters.

The new service involves using a teletypewriter (TTY) with a nine step instruction sheet.

"This whole deal is a disaster for hearing impaired people. The minister expects all CapTel users to step back about ten years and revert to antiquated technology such as the Uniphone 1150," Mr Levy said.

"My mum cannot use a smartphone. I issue a personal challenge to the minister: I will be happy to come to Canberra and you show me on your iPad or laptop exactly how to do what is described. I will bet unless you are carefully coached, you will not be able to do that yourself, and you are much younger than my mother.

The minister does not seem to care that my mum and many others will be cut off from their family and friends because of the mean-spirited decision he has made.

Chris Levy

A spokeswoman for Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, confirmed the service would not be available from the end of January.

"Captioned relay will continue to be available as part of the National Relay Service (NRS) through any standard telephone handset, mobile or smartphone. A device with a screen will be required to receive captioning. A smartphone would allow people to use one device to make the call and read the captioning from any location.".

The spokeswoman said the government was "technology agnostic about the services provided through the NRS, and did not seek to exclude the CapTel handset". She said the NRS helpdesk would help users transition to a new service.

"At the time of the tender, the owner of the Captel proprietary system cited an exclusive agreement with the existing relay service provider and declined to deal with other potential providers."

The government spokeswoman said they have "approached and remain open to working with the owners of the CapTel technology to give existing users longer to transition ... however no practical approach has yet been put forward".

But Mr Levy said "maybe they did not exclude CapTel specifically, but by cutting some eight million from the budget, what did they think would happen? The people writing the tender document must have been commercially naive, or perhaps very badly informed."

Mr Levy claims the helpdesk had also told him the new service was not suitable for his mother.

On the Save CapTel Facebook page (which has garnered 5000 supporters to its petition), a spokeswoman for the company Ultratec that built the CapTel technology, Mary Cory, said they had been providing products to the deaf community for decades and did not want to limit access.

"It would be entirely illogical and certainly never the intent to limit access. I can assure you we stand ready to do whatever is necessary to make sure that Captel service is available to Australians and will work with any suitable organisations to that end," she said.

Tony Bennett, who works for AccessComm, a distributor of the CapTel phone, said it was a cost cutting decision and done without consultation. He said the new service would require nine steps to make an emergency call and involved using technology from the 1960s.

"They picked a provider that didn't have a handset. We've got an ageing population and we need this service."

Federal MP for Macquarie, Susan Templeman, said having to change services is a ridiculous step for elderly people and they deserved better.

"The government has mishandled CapTel and have failed to resolve the situation for people like Betty since the decision to change providers was made in June 2017.

"We've been raising this issue for months and the minister ignored concerns. He hasn't been listening, and while there's a last minute panic now to try and remedy the situation, he only has himself to blame."