British Sign Language (BSL) users will soon have a better way of communicating with their local authorities. In September, Significan't (a UK company) will launch a specialist call centre which will give deaf people access to sign language interpreters to help them resolve queries with their local authorities.
The company approached the government with the idea, and was awarded a grant of £500,000 from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) to fund the infrastructure set up and pay for the first year's running costs.
The idea is that the service will overcome the cost and convenience barriers that currently prevent BSL users from dealing with simple issues, such as asking a question about a parking permit, or making a complaint about late collection of rubbish.
People will be able to dial into the call centre from their local authorities, which will give them access to an interpreter who can help them speak to the council official.
Jeff McWhinney, director of Significan't, says that the goal is to have people be able to dial in from home, but at the moment, security issues mean it's not practical.
Also frame rates for sign language need to be between 20 and 25 FPS, which means that the video calling equipment needs to be fairly sophisticated, (read - expensive) and reliable. For the time being, this rules out a lot of home equipment.
The Sign Video Call Centre, which will be based on Cisco's CallManager and IPCC systems, will initially be rolled out to the 12,000 BSL users in London, but the company hopes to take it nation-wide if it is well received.
Currently, most deaf people do not have much experience of telephone culture, says McWhinney, and what experience they do have will be by text-phone.
But interaction via text phone with call centres are notoriously frustrating for both the call centre operator and for the deaf caller, McWhinney says. Resolving a query can take as much as 12 times as long via text-phone, as compared to a normal voice call.
"We are asking deaf people to make a significant leap from not using the phone at all to using video calling," he said.
However, figures from a similar venture in the States suggest the service will be appreciated. After one year in operation a video calling system in the US recorded 7,000 minutes of video call time per months. By the end of its third year, it was booking 4m minutes every month.
Significan't says that on a pay-as-you-go basis the service will cost around £2 per minute, while heavy users on a contract will pay half that. This might sound expensive, but McWhinney explains that interpreters currently have to be booked two weeks in advance, and for a minimum period of three hours at between £75-£150 per session. ®