As Vision Australia celebrates 40 years since the introduction of its telephone based group program Telelink, founder Jennifer Gibbons reflects on the progress it has made over the years.
Since 1980, Telelink has allowed people who are blind or have low vision to come together in small groups and enjoy shared interests over the phone or via video conferencing technology.
“When I joined the social work department of the [then] Association for the Blind, all of our work with clients was done face to face in the client’s home and at that time in Australia people were concerned about running out of fuel,” Jennifer said.
“I knew there had to be a better way to provide our services.”
Jennifer became interested in the idea of using the telephone, so staff and clients could interact with each other without the need to travel.
Jennifer contacted Telecom to see if they would support the idea of Telelink groups and they were receptive and excited.
At that time, conference calls were made using the Telecom (now Telstra) state conference table, which meant small groups of people were connected manually by a Telecom operator.
“They wanted to promote the technology and have more people using it,” Jennifer said.
“Telecom agreed to our groups being run for an hour at a time at the cost of five dollars per group.”
While there were some teething problems with the new technology, Jennifer said the passion of the early Telelink participants ensured the program succeeded.
“We experienced lots of ups and downs with our sound and keeping things working because the technology was very new.
“However, our clients were keen to talk to each other so they were very patient with technology.”
While Telelink groups are now mainly a discussion around a central topic, the initial group touched on a number of topics.
“We really were just testing out the technology so we decided to keep it fairly simple,” Jennifer explained.
“We talked about which football teams we followed, what Association for the Blind services we liked to use and which talking books we liked.”
Reaching a new audience
As the topics discussed in Telelink groups grew, so too did its reach. After beginning in Melbourne, the program then became available across Victoria, before becoming the national offering it is today.
For Jennifer, it was pleasing to witness Telelink grow into something that bought people who are blind or have low vision from across Australia together.
“Telelink is very precious to many people and I’m glad that others have helped Telelink to expand and become a service that can be accessed by people all over Australia.
“I congratulate Vision Australia for keeping the program going for 40 years.”