On May 8, Sprint released a new update to the Sprint IP Relay app. While the description only states that there are "Miscellaneous bug fixes", one of those bug fixes is very significant... it restores access for braille users. Until now, braille users have not had a reliable solution to access relay via their mobile devices.
What is Text Relay Anyway?
For those unfamiliar, text relay allows a deaf or DeafBlind person to access the phone system through a relay operator, who is a hearing person that can relay the message from the deaf or DeafBlind user to a hearing person on the phone. The deaf or DeafBlind person can type messages from a mobile device or computer, which a hearing operator will then read to the caller. The Relay Operator will then type back to the deaf or DeafBlind person what the hearing person on the phone has said.
Many deaf individuals, who are native sign language users, utilize video phone systems to communicate with the hearing world via telephone through a relay operator. For more information on Video Phones, see this article. However, this is not possible for an individual who does not have enough residual vision to see the person signing to them. Until last week, no such service was available on a mobile platform that worked reliably for braille users with a text interface. This meant, for example, that a totally DeafBlind person trying to access the phone system did not have a reliable way to do so. Calling 911 was not an option. While iOS 10 introduced a TTY Mode reviewed in the above linked article from a braille user's perspective, it had some issues.
Where We Came From, As It Relates to Sprint
With prior releases of the Sprint IP Relay app, braille users were not easily able to follow what a relay operator was saying. This was due to the fact that all text from each user was in one big block until the other user typed a message. To make the issue even more concerning, each time the operator typed a character, the braille and VoiceOver cursors jumped to the top of the block of text, and the braille user had to scroll all the way to the end of that block of text, or type something in to force the new text on to its own line.
In 2015, Sprint brought a different format to their website which allowed the user to have the text delivered in an "IM" format. This meant that each new message appeared on its own line. The Sprint IP app, however, continued to be nearly unusable for those who wished to use the mobile service. While it was true that one could make a call with a web browser on their mobile device, the user couldn't accept calls from others.
Where We Are Now
With the most recent update, iOS braille users should be able to utilize the Sprint IP Relay service much more effectively. The only change the user has to make, if they have already registered, is to go in to the "navigation roar" part of the app, choose "settings" followed by "conversation style" and after scrolling down a bit, you will find "are you a braille users"? Activate the switch button, and off you go. Each new message the operator sends will appear on its own line, and will not move around as it had in previous releases.
So I Have The App, What Now?
If you qualify, after registration, you will need to provide proof of your identity to a live operator. While the registration process is nearly fully accessible using a braille display on the iOS app, there is one critical area in the process which needs fixing. There are buttons to check which say that you agree to the Terms of Service, and that you certify that the information you have provided is accurate. However, there are 4 unlabeled buttons, according to VoiceOver, which somehow allow you to check that you agree to the 2 statements and then activate the "done" button. however, I was not able to accomplish this task. I was able to register through the Sprint IP Relay Website, with little difficulty using JAWS on a Windows 10 computer with a Braille Edge 40.
How Well Does It Work?
First, let me get the specifics out of the way. The below information is accurate as of version 2.0.3, which was released on May 15.
After you have created your account, you will be given the option to allow the app to access your contacts. Being able to sync your contacts is a nice time saver, since you will not need to re-build a new list.
Placing a Call
After you have told the app that it can or cannot access your contacts, and whether or not you wish to receive Push Notifications, you will be presented with a fairly straight forward screen, as described above. Next to the "navigation roar" you will find an icon for Sprint IP Relay, followed by the "new call" button. Beyond that, if you have made calls in the past, you will see your call history. If you activate the "new call" button, you can either search for a contact or add a recipient from your Contacts List.
Okay, So Let's Make a Call!
While in a call, you have a very clean interface to navigate as a braille user. You have the "back" button in the upper left corner of the screen, followed by an "end call" button, followed by any chat history that already exists within the call. if you wish to quickly go to the text field, press space with 4-5-6, and then press space with dot 1 to go back one icon from the send button. When you have completed your thoughts, simply press space with dot 8 to send your message to the relay operator. The process is very smooth, however, you will not be notified of any incoming chat messages from the relay operator. I have checked with a few other people, and they all report that no vibration alert occurs when the Relay Operator has sent a message. As such, I recommend scrolling back from time to time to ensure that you have not missed anything. As is customary with text relay, it's important to type "GA" when you have finished typing your message. "Ga" stands for go ahead. This lets the other person know that they are free to speak and that you are ready to receive their messages. While the relay operator will explain this to the hearing caller, it has been my experience that few comprehend what is being asked of them, assuming they even get that far with you before hanging up on you. But this is an article about IP Relay, not text relay etiquette , so I will leave it there.
After completing your call, activate the "end call" button as described above. You will then have the option to copy the transcript to your clipboard, email it, or cancel the set of options which will delete the transcript from your phone. Activate "done" and you are back to where you started.
While there still need to be some minor improvements, I'm happy to now tell DeafBlind users that they have an option other than their old TTY devices for text relay. While it's certainly true that text relay is a slower mode of communication, it's certainly better than not having communication access at all. Prior to last week, for some, this was the case. I hope that Sprint will work to improve the braille experience even further, and I'm happy that after 3 years of advocating, the system is now much more usable for braille customers.