Supporting the Deaf and hard of hearing community
Here at NBN Co, we understand better than most just how important gaining access to fast broadband is to Australians. Whether for work or for play – or both – well performing internet is highly desired and has the ability to help make a significant difference to people’s lives. Some, perhaps, more than others.
Meet Phil Harper.
Phil is the Community Liaison Manager at Conexu Foundation*, a not-for-profit organisation that aims to improve the connectedness of Deaf, hard of hearing and speech-impaired Australians.
Access to fast broadband, says Phil, is imperative for these Australians because a critical part of their access to the wider community is communication. And he should know: Phil is also Deaf.
Conexu Foundation: connecting the unconnected
Five years ago, Conexu Foundation was established in response to demand for greater access to technology, beyond what was available through the National Relay Service.
“Conexu Foundation was set up to support Deaf, hard of hearing and also speech-impaired people with finding solutions to accessibility or communication gaps in the community or in services,” explains Phil.
Some of the ways Conexu Foundation does this is by identifying or developing technology that can help overcome obstacles preventing members of the community from participating in everyday life.
“That’s basically what we do: we try to find solutions that bridge those barriers or create them ourselves. We find what’s out there, or we create technology ourselves through apps or through a website.”
An example of their important work is the OpenAccess Face to Face app, which provides real-time communication between spoken and sign language.
“OpenAccess Face to Face is where we’re supporting access to [Australian Sign Language] Auslan learning: education, communication and over 900 different signs,” says Phil.
The app allows people of any age – whether school children, mums and dads, adults or service providers – to use the app for communication support.
Then there’s OpenAccess Tours. Again, developed by the foundation, this app enables users to have “the full experience at museums, galleries, and other cultural venues” (something the rest of us may take for granted) by copying the scripts of guided tours and turning them into Auslan captioning.
And to help engage with a hearing person, there’s OpenAccess Chat.
“That app really supports people who are Deaf or hard of hearing who meet with a hearing person: go to a bank or a pub, just having a social chat. Sometimes they might be very noisy or the person they’re talking with is a bit hard to understand, or the information they want to get is critical … So, a chat app is another way through text typing and through speech-to-text that you can have a conversation,” says Phil.
All in a day’s work
It’s innovative ideas like these that are all in a day’s work for Phil. Working closely with the community, businesses and organisations, he provides awareness about technology and accessibility, advocates for more of it, and collaborates on ideas for solutions for the future.
His day can involve running community accessible-technology workshops in metro and regional areas, and training in schools attended by Deaf and hard of hearing students on how to use apps and websites.
“Some of our apps support language and literacy development, even speech, signing awareness, signing skills, supporting students and their families with better communication, their peer friends and so on. So, the apps have been critical for opening doors and growing the ability for teachers and students to learn and educate.”
Phil could also be working flexibly from home, making the most of his residential service over the nbn™ broadband access network to make video calls.
While a shaky connection can get on even the most patient person’s nerves, a video chat without constant buffering is imperative for those relying on the visual side of communication to have a conversation.
“Here at home, [I have a] better internet connection through the nbn™ access network than I have at work, so I take advantage of that,” says Phil. “When I’m talking with other people, I need to sign and chat with them and I want good quality, fluid communication, not something that stops and we have to wait.
“I also use it for when I’m downloading or uploading videos that we’ve filmed for the Tours app: filming people who are doing translation work. So, often I upload them here – not at work – because I don’t have the same level of service there that I have here.”
Balancing work with life
The opportunity to work from home also means Phil can juggle the intensity of his work with some much needed downtime.
Phil says having his internet service over the nbn™ access network “here at home is good because it means that I can work from home, it saves travel – it takes from home to work sometimes an hour, sometimes an hour and a half. So I’m lucky. It’s good that I can shift from the office to home and do that easily.”
Phil’s commitment and passion for his work is abundantly clear, but he’s also aware of the need for balance.
“The work I do, I’ve been doing for a long, long time, many years [and I have a] very strong commitment to supporting community access. My wife is Deaf too, [and] she has a very similar philosophy, so we’re both very committed to working with the community.
“But also, critically, our family with four children, it’s very important that we also support them in making sure their life, their growth, school and friends is well supported by us, Mum and Dad. So, we get out – work is critical – but we make sure we have our own personal time, even just using technology to talk with a lot of friends from overseas, video chats with them.”
He also used video to stay in touch with home during a recent visit overseas.
“Every day, I’d talk to my wife, Carla, through video: chat, FaceTime and so on. That was critical for me to feel that I’m still connected to here.”
And it was on this recent work trip to America that Phil was able to showcase the work of Conexu Foundation, making the precious time away from his family worthwhile.
“I’ve just come back from a conference in San Diego run by California State University, Northridge. Every year, they have an accessibility and technology conference for people with disabilities. That conference was an opportunity to share a project we did over the last 10 months, where we worked with the Australian Deaf Games organising committee to assist the host cities, Albury and Wodonga, to make sure they were ready, accessible and comfortable with over 800 Deaf and hard of hearing people going there for a sports event over an eight-day period.
“We researched how we could support both the cities, the communities, the councils, service providers – like the airport, visitor information centres, restaurants and so on – to have apps or even just tools where they can be better prepared, better aware of when Deaf people come and use their services. So we documented that journey and the conference was an opportunity to share that information.”
What’s next for Conexu?
The foundation is always on the lookout for new ideas and ways to improve the lives of its community members.
“We’ve had interest from overseas in the work that we do, so we’re looking to explore that. Again, finding barriers that are still out there and seeing if we can find solutions, whether it’s a combination of mainstream [solutions] plus ours, or just ours. [We’re] just always looking for ways to improve things, improve access.”
Asked whether there’s anything he’d like the rest of Australia to know about the Deaf and hard of hearing community, Phil jokes: “How much time do you have?” And then he’s serious.
“Deaf and hard of hearing people are just like anyone else. It’s not obvious that I’m Deaf and so often we’re sort of hidden a little bit. So, the critical part of our access to the community is communication. I think the more awareness people have and appreciate the need for making sure inclusion happens – whatever way, whether it’s interpreters, whether it’s captions, whether it’s just a better understanding and a good attitude to people – helps build that bridge and helps make our lives better for participating, feeling more equal. So, it would be good if that could be more positive, more inclusive, people doing even more things in that space.”
Bringing it back to that desire for fast broadband, Phil adds, “It’s critical that NBN Co works with the [Deaf] community to make sure that access is good.”
Sharing similar organisational missions to help bridge the digital (NBN Co) and communication (Conexu) divides, together, we’re set to make a real difference to the lives of Australians. And that’s what it’s all about.