Universal Access for ALL

May 25, 2022

The most common way of reaching 9-1-1 is by picking up a phone and speaking with an operator. But have you ever wondered how YOU would communicate, citing your location and other emergency details, if you couldn’t speak, hear, were blind or had a cognitive disability? 

Navigating our world with special needs is challenging at the best of times. Societies can struggle to provide basic access to amenities for those with cognition and physical challenges, and the emergency services is no exception. Yet “accessibility for all” is not only a matter of political, but also of moral importance.

There are approximately 1 billion people globally with a disability, with 135 million living in Europe,  and in the US 48 million people are deaf or hard of hearing, and 7.5 million people have speech disabilities. Furthermore, as people age, they are more likely to suffer hearing loss or cognitive impairments with a result that such challenges are borne disproportionately by our older generations too. 

Yet many emergency services are only reachable through a standard voice call, meaning a staggering proportion of the population are being marginalized and discriminated against. Many current emergency communication options are inefficient, outdated, or underutilized, leaving disabled callers vulnerable. 

Calling 9-1-1 is stressful. Many layers of information are exchanged to ensure help is dispatched correctly. It’s therefore imperative the process is efficient and as error free as possible, whether you have a disability, or not. 

“For a First Responder to help you, they first have to find you.”

Location of the emergency is the most important piece of information needed by the operator, but if the person calling/texting is already facing an uphill battle with simply “communicating” then that’s not only even more frustrating, but can lead to poorer outcomes. 

Text to 9-1-1 for users with disabilities

In the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does require wireless carriers to deliver emergency texts only to call centers which make a request for them. Meaning providers are obliged to deliver a Text to 9-1-1 (T9-1-1) service to that center within a 6-month time period. T9-1-1 does enable deaf, deafened, hard of hearing, or speech-impaired persons to communicate with an operator in the event of an emergency, but in order to use T9-1-1, users require a compatible cellphone and need to be registered with their phone number to the wireless service provider. T9-1-1 also only exists in approximately 10% of the US, although it is more widespread in Canada.

Alternatives to T9-1-1 are using a teletype or teletypewriter (TTY) or a relay service. 

Relay-operator services use 3rd party interpreters and take several minutes of communication exchange. The service involves sending an emergency text message first to a communications assistant (CA), who then calls the PSAP. The CA serves as a “relay” in the conversation between the emergency texter and the PSAP, voicing all typed text from the person with the disability, and sending PSAP replies to the caller. The process if far from simple and is open to delays and translation errors.

Teletypewriters are typically small, flat keyboards (laptop size) with a telephone perched above a keyboard. Use of these devices has dropped since texting became more popular, they are also a little cumbersome and take time to use.

Providing location during wireless calls/texts

But whether it’s providing text or video services, easy-to-understand alerts, pictograms, alert buttons, or apps, clear communication and obtaining an accurate location of the call will save lives.

  • Imagine you texted 9-1-1 for help and you didn’t have to relay your exact location…because they already had it? That’s going to save some time. 
  • Imagine you are a blind 9-1-1 caller and can’t describe your current whereabouts, but they already had your hotel room and floor level?
  • Imagine the caller was an autistic child and couldn’t describe the emergency, but the dispatcher already knew where they were?

Accurate, automatic, reliable location data, in all forms of communication, is essential. Without it help will not arrive quickly or at all. Additionally, precise location data is required for routing and dispatch in a Next Generation environment; where location must be available at the same time as the call. Transitioning to a 9-1-1- service which accepts text, video and VoiP etc. needs to have the dispatchable location information layer already built in, but currently there’s no dispatchable address being provided for any wireless calls. 

We have a long way to go

For T9-1-1 the FCC still urges users of wireless phones or other type of mobile device to still make a voice call, if possible. And they say, “if you are deaf, hard of hearing or speech disabled, and T9-1-1 is not available, use a TTY or a telecommunications relay service, if possible.”. 


In Canada, whilst more widespread, regulators say:

“T9-1-1 is considered a “best efforts” service due to the technology constraints associated with text messaging. As with any text messaging services, there is no guarantee a text message will be sent, delivered, or received in a timely manner. In the unlikely event that this happens, the user will need to re-send the message.

Providing location information and the nature of the emergency in the first message is imperative. The 9-1-1 call taker may receive an approximate location of your cell phone with your 9-1-1 call; however, it is important for the caller to confirm the exact location of the emergency.”


There is clearly a lot more work that needs to be done.  9-1-1 is a critical life-saving program which should be directly, immediately, and equally accessible to ALL. Location of an emergency caller is still our industry’s biggest challenge, and even more evident in emergency call cases of persons with disabilities. Providing a dispatchable address would enable that universal access.