Communications services for disabled people
Ofcom requires communications providers to provide a range of services designed to benefit disabled people, including:
- access to an approved 'next generation' text relay service for calls to and from hearing- or speech-impaired people, with special tariffs to compensate disabled customers for the additional time taken by these calls. Next generation text relay can be accessed from mainstream equipment such as PCs, tablets and smartphones as well as from textphones. To find out more about this service, visit RelayUK or see Ofcom's consumer guide.
- access to an approved emergency video relay service for deaf British Sign Language (BSL) users. This service can be accessed from any connected device, such as a PC, tablet or smartphone, via the 999BSL website or 999BSL app. It is free to use and the data used for the call is zero-rated. For more information visit the 999BSL website.
- access to emergency SMS (mobile only) by using the emergency call numbers “112” and “999” at no charge for hearing or speech impaired people who need to contact the emergency services. To use this service, text ‘register’ to 999 or 112. Registration only takes around a minute, so it is possible to register in an emergency, but advance registration is strongly recommended. For more information visit RelayUK.
- access to free directory enquiries with through-connection of calls for people who are unable to use a printed directory because of a disability.
- priority fault repair (for landline and broadband but not mobile) for any disabled person who has a genuine need for an urgent repair. Charges for this must not exceed the provider’s standard charge for a fault repair service.
- third-party bill management for any disabled customer, enabling a nominated friend or relative to act on their behalf in relation to bill management.
- communications relating to communications services in a reasonably acceptable format such as large print and Braille. This is on request from a customer who needs such a format because of their disability.
Articles for the Blind is a free postal service for blind and visually impaired people that Royal Mail must provide which waives all costs for sending:
- Books, printed materials, letters, relief maps
- Audio and electronic media
- Equipment such as magnifiers and mobility aids.
You need to register in advance for some of these services - please contact your communications provider or Royal Mail for information about how to do this. Communications providers are required to publicise the services that are available for disabled people.
The UK Regulators Network (UKRN) has also published advice on the extra help available to older, ill, or disabled people when using services such as gas, electricity, water, phones and public transport.
Deaf BSL users can now call the emergency services in their first language.
Ofcom has required telecoms companies to make emergency video relay available in the UK. This will make it easier for deaf British Sign Language users to get the help they need, such as police, ambulance or fire brigade, in emergencies.
Emergency text relay and emergency SMS will continue to be available alongside emergency video relay.
We would like to thank the deaf people who have been involved in campaigning for this change, and who have provided advice to Ofcom.
To use emergency video relay, you will need a connected device such as a smartphone, tablet or computer. Emergency video relay can be accessed via a standalone website or the 999BSL app. Please download the 999BSL app to your phone or tablet, and encourage your deaf friends and family members to do the same. The website address is 999bsl.co.uk.
Five key things about emergency video relay:
- Available 24 hours a day
- Free to use
- The emergency services treat 999 BSL calls exactly like voice 999 calls - they have the same priority and are answered by the same emergency control room staff.
- Just like for voice 999 calls, your location is normally provided to the emergency services
- Staffed by qualified and experienced interpreters
This video has been made by Ofcom. We are the UK’s regulator for communications services including broadband, home phone and mobile services, as well as TV, radio and post.
FAQ 1: Can emergency video relay be accessed from outside the UK?
It is possible that people may make emergency video relay calls from outside the UK, but the calls can only be connected to UK 999 control rooms. Voice 999 calls are sometimes received from outside the UK, e.g. from mobile phones close to the Irish border. These calls are dealt with by UK emergency authorities, so this is equivalent.
FAQ 2: What if I need to register to use Wi-Fi, for example on a train or in a hotel?
Using Wi-Fi on a train or in a hotel may require registration. We cannot control how private businesses manage their networks. However, emergency video relay must be zero-rated under Ofcom rules, so users should be able to use their own devices using mobile data free of charge, without running out of data or being charged extra.
Subtitling, sign language on TV and audio description, known as television access services, help people with hearing or visual impairments to understand and enjoy television.
Ofcom ensures that broadcasters provide minimum proportions of programmes with subtitling, sign language and audio description. Ofcom publishes information about the amounts of television access services that broadcasters are required to provide and what they actually deliver.
Subtitling: currently 70 channels are required to provide some level of subtitling, with the BBC committed to subtitling 100% of its programming.
Signed television programmes incorporate a signer translating dialogue and sound effects into sign language. Low audience channels may, as an alternative to transmitting their quota of sign interpreted programmes, pay an equivalent sum of money to the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust which has been set up to commission programmes presented in sign language. Over 60 channels have signed up to this scheme and programmes can be watched on the BSL Zone on television and on the BSLBT website.
Audio description comprises a separate audio track in which a narrator uses spaces in the original sound track to describe what is happening on-screen for the benefit of people with visual impairments. Like subtitling, it can be turned on or off. You can find listings of audio-described programmes here. An increasing number of set-top boxes and televisions receive audio description, and it can also be accessed on cable and satellite television.
On cable and satellite only, you may need to use a different channel number to access the audio description for BBC One, BBC Two, ITV1 and Channel 4, depending on where you live. If you cannot receive audio description, try changing to these channels:
BBC One outside London
BBC Two outside England
ITV outside London
Channel 4 outside London
All consumers benefit from equipment that is easy to use, but for disabled consumers this is a particularly important issue.
Ofcom has a duty under the Communications Act to promote the development and availability of easy-to-use consumer equipment. However, Ofcom has limited regulatory powers in relation to such equipment. Instead, we work with others to promote usability.
There are also some useful online resources to help disabled people choose equipment that will be suitable for them.