Our Work Ahead: Reflections From TDI’s Biennial Conference


Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Inc (TDI), held their 24th Biennial Conference through a virtual platform at the end of July. The theme of the conference was “Reset and Reconnect”, focusing on topics such as: changes that have taken place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, barriers and opportunities for embracing the next generation of mobile phone technology, automated captioning, tele-platform accesses, diversity and inclusion within communication, and broadband access. Throughout the conference an ongoing theme was functional equivalence and improved system integration for mobile phones. We are excited that these themes were consistent with the work and vision of IRIS, an effort in making the mobile phone more accessible to TRS services without relying on additional applications. Our work in this area of functional equivalence and breaking down barriers by working with the community will have a meaningful impact in the areas of 911 services and video calling interoperability. Here are more details outlining alignment with the conference. 

TDI Theme: Functional Equivalence/Interoperability

The Need to Strive for Functional Equivalence.

In thinking about equity and accessibility, there is often a disparity in the tools and processes available for Deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) individuals than to hearing individuals when placing a phone call (i.e hardware devices such as videophones, landline CTS devices, relying on a service provider, managing multiple phone numbers, etc). We have used the term “functional equivalence” to help us look at the technology and services available for DHH people. While hardware devices are capable of connecting calls, the different processes and multiple steps required to connect accessibility services involved can have a negative impact on the DHH community.  Functional equivalence is an evolving and important ongoing conversation among our communities and keeps accessibility as a priority. The presentations and dialogues centered around finding areas to improve within both the services and technologies were aligned with many aspects of the IRIS vision.

Alignment with IRIS Vision

The Need To Push for Improvements in Interoperability.

Carrie Lou Garberogli, Director of National Deaf Center, presented information that highlighted information showing how Deaf people are severely behind in advancements of technology.  Access is a shared commitment, not something that one person or one office must bear. One of the core components of the IRIS vision is to create improvements on connecting different devices to Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS) without the need for additional processes like relying on multiple apps and different phone numbers. This concept of interoperability was shared throughout the conference and refers to the basic ability of different computerized products or systems to readily connect and exchange information with one another  without restriction. 

Currently, mobile phone technology is centered around the usage of hearing individuals. Hearing users are not required to download additional applications to make phone calls; in addition, they are able to use the mobile number assigned by their carrier (as opposed to a DHH person using the number assigned by their TRS provider to place/receive calls). With the work of the IRIS vision, the need to download external applications will be eliminated. The proposed improvements in the IRIS vision would provide immediate system integration under System Preferences and the Accessibility menu, allowing users to make and receive calls from their mobile phone device, connect to TRS easily, and would require only one telephone number. 

One significant update during the conference was provided David Bahar, a member of the North American Numbering Council (NANC) Interoperable Video Conferencing Workgroup (IVC), a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) working group that is working to cultivate solutions on addressing interoperability of mobile devices and implementing system integration to provide immediate access to phone calls. Mr. Bahar presented that while there have been noticeable improvements over the last two decades, there are still hindrances that need work, especially interoperability. 

A panel discussion of community leaders expanded on this topic by discussing the future of relay services. Panel participants were: Zainab Alkebsi from the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), Spencer Montan from Center on Access Technology (CAT), Lance Pickett from Sorenson Communications, and Michael Scott from the FCC. Mr. Montan was able to share more details of the IRIS vision. Mr. Pickett reminded participants that while there is a desire for improved accessibility with hardware and processes in that specific field, that we all need to consider developing advanced technology for the interpreters so they can provide continued access for the DHH community. 

The Need to Improve TRS with 911 Services.

Another area of discussion was centered around access to emergency services. In many ways, accessing 911 services can be considered one of the most important functions on a cellular device and the integration of the IRIS vision will have a direct impact on how our community reaches a 911 operator. In the event of an emergency, dialing 911 should connect the caller to an emergency call center that will route the appropriate services to the exact location of the caller. Public-safety answering points, sometimes called public-safety access points, (PSAPs), are capable of tracking the exact location of the caller with the use of geolocation implemented inside the operating system of the mobile device. Using the technology allows dispatch services to provide quicker emergency response times. A DHH person must currently choose between dialing 911 directly from their mobile phone, which will share precise geolocation data without immediate access to TRS communication services, or dialing through a TRS application, which will connect them to an interpreter or captionist but does not provide geolocation services. 

This experience for our community was addressed during the Town Hall with the Federal Communications Commission: Consumer & Governmental Bureau, and Disability Rights Office. The FCC is aware that this is an issue among the DHH community and highlighted a plan that is scheduled to be completed in October. This plan would require TRS providers to support directing calls to their local PSAPs by January 6, 2022. Implementation of the IRIS vision would take this even further by allowing calls to be made directly from the mobile device, connect to TRS services, and pass geolocations data to the PSAP operator.

Community Support

The Need of Community Support to Break Down Technical Barriers.

Interoperability and 911 geolocation are two of the many current technical barriers that DHH communities face with mobile phone technology. During the IP-CTS panel, Nathan Gomme, Executive Director of the New Mexico Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, expressed that there was a need for improvements in both the technology and quality of services among TRS providers to provide full accessibility for the DHH communities. Mr. Gomme also reminded the community that there are still varying differences among technologies such as how Android and iOS operate. This emphasizes the importance of the DHH community sharing concerns with these companies to push for innovation in accessibility. 


While improvements in accessible technology have been made, much more work needs to be done. It is clear that the DHH community must be actively engaged in advocating for these changes. 

One way to do this is to share comments and feedback with national organizations such as NAD and TDI. Together we can be a powerful force in advocating for improvements in accessible technology for our community.