ER24 and Vodacom have come together to empower people living with hearing or speech disabilities and the National Relay Service (NRS), the result of this partnership, is a South African first that represents a huge step forward as we strive towards creating greater digital inclusivity.

It’s something many of us dread: finding ourselves in a crisis situation where we need expert emergency assistance. But, the person on the other end of the line is unable to assist. It’s comforting to realise that help is always just a phone call away with NRS. 

Until now, this has not been the case for South Africans who are hearing or speech impaired. The frustration and anxiety they experience at being unable to express the problem facing them adds to an already fraught situation – which is why the introduction of the National Relay Service has been so warmly welcomed by South Africa’s disabled community. 

How it works 

Venolia Ngozo, a trainer at ER24’s Contact Centre explains that the organisation has always prided itself on offering a world class service, backed by state of the art technology, skilled emergency resource officers and an international footprint, thanks to its global and aeromedical services. “We pride ourselves on living up to our slogan: giving real help, real fast,” she says, adding that ER24 takes more than 700 000 calls every month. 

The introduction of the National Relay Service ensures that this service is now available to even more South Africans. Given that there are more than four million people in this country who are deaf or hard of hearing, according to the South African National Deaf Association, this means that a significant number of people are able to benefit.  

Tumi Ndlovu, Team Leader: ER24 National Relay Service, explains that the initiative makes it possible for deaf and hearing or speech impaired customers to make contact with the Contact Centre using a call, which is received through ER24’s Relay Centre and intercepted by an Emergency Resource Officer. The agent will call a number (112 or 124) to pass the call through to a relay officer who is fluent in South African Sign Language, and who is able to act as a middle man, passing the information conveyed by the customer back to the agent. This ensures that the agent is able to establish the nature and location of the emergency, and determine what type of assistance is needed so that it is dispatched timeously. 

The service is also available to customers who are paralysed or blind. In this case, rather than communicating over video call, the customer will make a voice call or send an email.

Help at hand 

The NRS has employed 10 agents – five handling voice calls and five handling video calls – since it was launched in November 2022. 

For these agents, working at NRS is not a job – it’s a calling. “I first learnt sign language to impress a deaf boy,” laughs Tsakani, one of the relay officers, “but I am so glad I did. It’s enabled me to make friends with more deaf people, and to help the deaf community.” 

Her passion is shared by colleague Istorina. “I first saw someone signing when I was at university. I instantly fell in love with sign language, and changed my degree so that I could study it as soon as possible.” 

The team is proud that their efforts are not only helping deaf individuals, but that they are part of a movement ushering in greater digital inclusion. 

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