Groups say Verizon must
fix services for the disabled

Mainland operators do not understand
certain isle dialects, an organization says

By Helen Altonn

An organization that works with disabled residents wants the state Public Utilities Commission to investigate Verizon Hawaii's alleged failure to provide adequate telephone services for callers with impaired speech.

The statewide Assistive Technology Resource Centers of Hawaii also joined other groups and individuals in asking the Federal Communications Commission not to recertify Verizon Hawaii for the Speech-to-Speech Telephone Relay Service until what they say are rules violations and operational deficiencies are corrected.

In its filing to the PUC last month, the nonprofit group asked for a refund or rollback on surcharges paid by all residential and business telephone subscribers for "a service that can't be used by those who are supposed to benefit from it."

A Verizon Hawaii spokeswoman had no immediate comment.

In January 2002 the PUC increased the surcharge for the Speech-to-Speech relay service to 17 cents from 7 cents per access line per month.

Verizon asked for the increase to recover costs for operational changes and upgraded equipment to comply with 1991 Federal Communications Commission requirements for Speech-to-Speech Telephone Relay Service.

The Hawaii surcharge is one of the highest in the nation, totaling an estimated $500,000 to $1 million, according to Assistive Technology Resource Centers.

The relay system is intended to allow an estimated 11,000 islanders with cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, Parkinson's disease, stroke, a brain injury or other problems impeding speech to make phone calls.

They can call 711 toll-free, give the operator the number they want and use their own voice, a voice prosthesis, a communication device or an aide. Specially trained operators act as translators, repeating the caller's words.

Instead of using local operators, however, Verizon contracts with AT&T, which uses operators in Virginia who do not understand pidgin and ethnic dialects or Hawaiian names and expressions, the organization says.

"Verizon would never assign operators with deep Southern dialects to take calls from able-bodied Hawaii citizens simply because they would not understand each other," said Barbara Fischlowitz-Leong, Assistive Technology Resource Centers of Hawaii executive director. "Verizon would lose money. Yet they inflict this problem on Hawaii's STS users."

In a reply to the FCC, Verizon Hawaii said, "No commentator has identified any problems that would be sufficient to undermine the Hawaii application of TRS (Telecommunications Relay Service) certification renewal."

The company said the comments did not identify any violations of FCC regulations and "in many cases offer anecdotal accounts that do not accurately reflect the actual situation with the Verizon Hawaii STS (Speech-to-Speech) program."

Verizon said the AT&T Speech-to-Speech program is a regional center that serves other states and the Virgin Islands, and it is not aware of many complaints from them about the Virginia operators. Costs would increase significantly if relay operators were required in each state instead of in regional call centers, Verizon said.

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