Kentaro Hayase, who was born with hearing loss, could not understand what it was like to communicate over the phone.
The Yokohama cram school operator for children with hearing difficulties would have a family member call on his behalf when necessary.
But after learning of sign-language interpreters who offer phone relay services, Hayase, 43, has been making four to five calls per week for business or other purposes, including restaurant reservations.
“I didn’t quite appreciate what it was like to make a phone call,” he said.
But now that he has experienced real-time communications, he says his world has expanded.
“When I’m refused something, I can tell whether it’s 100 percent ‘no’ or if there is room for negotiation,” he said of the benefits of speaking with someone over the phone.
Using smartphones or computers, Hayase and others like him access sign-language interpreters via video-enabled internet phone or messaging platforms, such as Skype and Line. The interpreters then contact the intended parties, telling them they are calling on behalf of a person with hearing loss.
Words spoken at the other end of the line are fed back to the caller by way of sign language or text.
Many people with disabilities apparently have not made use of the service yet, saying email and faxes do the job. But Hayase said they are missing out on the benefits of the service.
“People aren’t aware of the necessity of the phone unless they use it,” he said. “I hope it will be made easily accessible to everyone.”
Similar relay services are offered in more than 20 other countries in Asia, Europe and the Americas.
In Japan, the nonprofit Nippon Foundation is running a free prototype service that has around 3,600 registered users, contracting work to six companies offering telephone operators and sign-language services. Other companies are offering paid services.
The phone relay service makes everyday activities easier, from doctor’s appointments and restaurant reservations to rescheduling parcel deliveries.
Right after powerful earthquakes of magnitude 6.5 and 7.3 struck Kumamoto Prefecture in April, the phone relay service was used to confirm the safety of people with hearing disabilities or to help such people requesting advice.
After accumulating stress from their prolonged stays at the shelters, some people with hearing loss even made video calls to the operators just because they wanted to chat in sign language, according to a center that supports people with hearing loss in the city of Kumamoto.
While the cost of sign-language interpretation abroad is often borne by governments or even phone carriers, Japan needs to address the cost issue as well as other challenges, including how to secure telephone operators and sign-language proponents, to ensure round-the-clock services.
The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has signaled that it is considering earmarking appropriations to tackle some of these issues in the next fiscal budget. But promoting the relay service does not appear to be a high priority at the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, which oversees information technology.
Hiroyuki Miura, president of PLUSVoice, a Sendai-based company that has run a phone relay service for more than 10 years, expects demand to rise in the coming years.
He noted increased awareness of the need for society to engage people with disabilities after the April enforcement of a law aimed at eliminating discrimination against the disabled, and in the run-up to the 2020 Paralympics that Tokyo is hosting along with the Summer Games.