Consumers with disabilities and the TIO
All Australians are guaranteed access to a basic fixed line telephone service – the standard telephone service. The guarantee is known as the Universal Service Obligation and is delivered by the Universal Service Provider, Telstra. Under the Universal Service Obligation, Telstra must:
- ensure that consumers with disabilities have reasonable access to voice telephony, or an equivalent form of communication if voice telephony is not practicable.
- ensure that consumers with disabilities are supplied with, on request, appropriate equipment with which to connect to the standard telephone service. This means that Telstra must give its customers the option of leasing equipment appropriate to their needs.
In general, anti-discrimination law requires that equipment suitable for consumers with a disability must be made available on the same terms and conditions (including price) as standard customer equipment.
Under the Universal Service Obligation, only Telstra is required to offer the full range of disability equipment. However, Optus has a Disability Equipment Program that provides standard equipment and disability equipment, including teletypewriters.
The regulations and standards that specify the equipment that must be available to consumers with disabilities are detailed in the Australian Communications and Media Authority's fact sheet Telecommunications equipment for people with a disability.
The TIO's role
We can investigate complaints about the supply of disability equipment, particularly where Telstra is not complying with its obligations as the Universal Service Provider; that is, if it is not providing the consumer with reasonable access to a standard telephone service, including a rental handset.
If a consumer's rental handset appears to be faulty, we will investigate. In addition, we will also consider complaints where the equipment provided may not suit the consumer's disability, or where additional equipment is required to use a service but has not been supplied.
While providers other than Telstra are not bound to supply disability equipment under the Universal Service Obligation, we expect that all service providers that bill a customer for local access should ensure that their customer's disability requirements are met – within reason – in relation to the provision of telecommunications services.
In the case of internet and mobile services falling outside the Universal Service Obligation, we may investigate complaints where a provider is alleged to have failed to provide equipment which is reasonably necessary for the consumer to access the service. In these cases, we would consider the advice provided to the consumer at the point of sale or in other conversations with the provider.
The following case studies illustrate how we handle complaints about disability related matters.
Case study #1
The consumer, who had trouble gripping a handset for long periods, signed up for a landline service that offered a disability handset with SMS function. She discovered that she could not send text messages as she had a silent phone number. Although the provider said it had told the consumer when the phone was installed that SMS was not available from silent phone numbers due to technical and privacy reasons, the consumer denied being informed.
The consumer said she would need the SMS function and a silent line as she
had an abusive ex-husband who had made threatening calls.
We raised this complaint with the provider. It said that SMS messages could not be sent from silent lines as the receiving phone service needed a number in order to respond. The provider said that even if it were possible to develop telephone networks that allowed SMS services with silent lines, it was under no obligation to provide a customer with one.
As a gesture of goodwill, the provider offered a credit of $250 towards a pre-paid mobile that could be used to send text messages.
Case study #2
The consumer, who is vision impaired, sought a mobile handset on a post-paid plan which would best suit his needs. The consumer was offered one mobile handset that the provider advised was suitable for visually impaired users. However this mobile handset had silver lettering on a white keypad and did not give sufficient contrast and was not appropriate for his use. The consumer was aware of another mobile handset which better suited his needs but the provider required him to purchase this handset outright (not on a post-paid plan), which he could not afford to do.
The consumer advised us that he had to borrow money from a friend to purchase the more appropriate mobile handset. The consumer wanted the provider to reimburse him this amount.
We raised this complaint with the provider. After consideration of the consumer's concerns, the provider offered the consumer a $150 credit to cover the cost of the more appropriate mobile handset that the consumer had purchased.
Case study #3
The consumer asked the provider to supply her with a teletypewriter. The provider sent the consumer a phone with amplified sound for the hearing impaired instead of a teletypewriter. The consumer attempted to have this error remedied on several occasions and the provider promised to send out the teletypewriter but did not do so. The consumer also experienced considerable frustration as she had difficulty in getting through to the provider's customer service. The consumer, who had a severe and deteriorating medical condition, did not have any access to a landline service in case of an emergency.
The provider then advised the consumer that it could not provide a teletypewriter and instead referred the consumer to Telstra, the Universal Service Provider.
We raised this complaint with the provider as a priority assistance1 complaint. The provider advised that it could not provide the teletypewriter and asked the consumer to transfer her landline service to Telstra and to sign an application form for the teletypewriter. This posed an added delay to the resolution of the complaint. We pressed the provider for an early resolution of the complaint and for a goodwill gesture to the consumer for the considerable delay and frustration experienced.
The provider registered the consumer's account as medical priority assistance, provided her with a teletypewriter and offered her a credit of $180 (which covered the access fees for the landline service for the period of the delay).
1Under the Universal Service Obligation Telstra is obliged to assign priority status to individuals in certain circumstances, including where the individual's life, health, safety or shelter would otherwise be at risk without a fully operational telecommunications service. Other service providers voluntarily offer priority assistance services in line with the requirements of the Communications Alliance Ltd industry code Priority Assistance for Life Threatening Medical Conditions.