“My basic human right to call people has been violated”

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By | March 29th, 2016

Here’s an interesting dilemma from Nathanael Hergert: Do you have a right to a phone call?

I’m not talking about your right to make a call after you’ve been arrested. Hergert isn’t in any trouble with the law. I’m talking about a right to use your phone without being overcharged.

Is there such a right?

Technically, yes. The federal government’s Lifeline program subsidizes phone service for low-income taxpayers.

Hergert has a cell phone from Verizon, and he’s looking for a particular kind of subsidy.

“My basic human right to call people has been violated,” he explains.

How so? Maybe I should just let him explain. Here’s the letter he wrote to Verizon’s CEO:

Currently, most telecom companies have unlimited phone and texting plans to go with a limited data plan such as 5 GB, 10 GB, etc.

I understand and respect the fact why you want to limit the data usage. You don’t want anyone to be using your phone network as a home network, thus clogging the Internet channels from your data usage, especially those who abuse it.

I am hard of hearing. I use video relay service through video phone, which enables deaf and hard of hearing individuals to use a sign language interpreter to relay calls in sign language. This is a great way for equal access for communication.

I use it at home, I use it on the road, at work. Everywhere.

But I have an issue with the limitation of the data plan.

Because the video relay service uses data, if I’m on the road, I could be on a conversation for one hour. That would be equivalent to about 180 MB. On average per month, I call about 10 hours. 1.8 GB is used up for the whole month.

What if disaster strikes and I have to call more than 30 hours in one month on the road?

I’m now past the 5 GB limit. All on calling alone. No other data usage. You are willing to charge me $15 per extra GB. It’s not free. Whereas, you are giving hearing people (with no problems using regular phone) free access to calling other people. Unlimited.


I am limited, and you charge me for data usage. I think it’s not fair at all. I’ve tried calling your national disability access center. They are worthless when it comes to corporate attention to this matter.

I would like access to unlimited data for me and my wife until you come up with a more permanent solution.

Well, this is interesting.

I’ve reviewed his email – to which Verizon hasn’t responded — a few times. I think Hergert is both right and wrong.

If there’s a real “disaster,” then there are no assurances the Verizon towers will still be up, so that may or may not be a realistic scenario. Also, unless his wife is hearing-impaired, why would Verizon offer him “free” data? If they did, then shouldn’t they also extend “free” data to his friends and family?

But Hergert has a point. The system is rigged to favor users who can hear, and it puts people who can’t hear at a disadvantage. But how much of a disadvantage?

There are a number of texting apps and services that would let someone like Hergert send messages in real time without affecting his data.

I think the question he means to ask is: Should his disability compel Verizon to offer an unlimited plan for same price he currently pays?

I don’t know.

As I review this problem, I’m surprised it’s a problem at all. I mean, it’s 2016. Why haven’t wireless carriers figured out how to give us the data we need without charging us $15 per GB? That’s (ahem) information superhighway robbery.

I believe the technology exists to offer always-on, high-speed connections for a low rate. Are wireless carriers more focused on making money on their legacy systems than figuring out a problem that all of us share with Hergert?

I think we all know the answer. It may be more obvious than the answer to Hergert, actually. Verizon is probably discriminating against him, but I’m a consumer advocate, not a disability lawyer.



  • Rebecca

    You lost me at “My basic human right to call people has been violated.”

  • unicorn

    There are other options besides Verizon. T-Mobile seems to offer unlimited data; there’s also portable Wifi hot spots. If enough people like the OP speak out, the free market will come up with solutions– if they don’t exist already.

  • M B

    Could this be a possible accommodation issue under the Americans with Disabilities Act? It’s incredibly broad in it’s reach…

  • Tom McShane

    It’s included under the Pursuit of Happiness. Also included are watching NFL games and driving for hundreds of miles in the left lane.

  • Ben

    Historically, many carriers have offered special plans for deaf people because they obviously have very different cell phone needs than hearing people. I think that’s a very good idea and something Verizon should consider in order to provide value to this particular group of users.

    Alternatively, Nathanael could consider to a pre-paid MVNO which might offer him more flexibility in plan choices while still enjoying Verizon’s network breadth and reliability.

  • Ben

    Suggesting another network is a valid solution, but isn’t always viable because network quality varies so much by locale.

    A portable hotspot doesn’t solve his issue at all, Verizon charges the same amount for data whether used by a hotspot or phone.

  • pmcw

    I voted no, but with a HUGE caveat. First, there is the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which I think is the front line defense for Nathanael. While hiring a lawyer would be expensive, there are advocate organizations in most major cities that help the disabled (inclusive of some that focus on people with hearing issues. If one of those organizations won’t take up the case, he could reach out to the ACLU, or even the U.S. Civil Rights organization, which also deals with ADA. A friend of mine, Russell Redenbaugh, was a commissioner there for roughly a decade, and his focus was on rights for the blind.
    Second, it would be easy for Verizon to not count data from one particular site or service. In other words, it would not need to give Nathanael unlimited free data – just not count the data from the site he uses for support. Third, a personal emergency would not necessarily mean cell service has been interrupted. Fourth, Nathanael could switch to Sprint where unlimited data is included in most of the cellular plans, and there is also a promise to slash his bill significantly.

  • Lindabator

    they aren’t denying him access – he just wants something they charge EVERYONE else for for free

  • M B

    Actually, there is a nuance in his complaint. He is using data to in order to make a phone call, not listen to pandora. Were he able to hear, he would be able to take advantage of the unlimited calls provided and not be dependent on data usage. In this case, the data could possibly be considered an accommodation for his disability.

  • John Baker

    Verizon offers a text relay service that doesn’t burn data ( https://www.verizonwireless.com/aboutus/accessibility/using-vrs.html ) so my answer is “No.” He also has the option of just texting other cell phone users. He has other options he’s choosing not to use that wouldn’t cause him to burn data.

  • LostInMidwest

    Let me preface my comment with this: I am also hard of hearing. Not disabled, mind, but enough to avoid phone-calls as much as possible. How much? Well, if given a choice, I will always pick the business that offers everything phone-free. Meaning, ALL transactions can be achieved by Web page/form or e-mail. If I see phone number only, I look elsewhere and pray to find another business that suits my needs and offers phone-free interaction.

    So, that said, his request is preposterous. I fully expect him to sue Alexander Bell’s heirs for discrimination against people with hearing issues. After all, TELEPHONE is exactly that – a device that relays human speech over distance. Just because current thingies have screens, that doesn’t mean that cellPHONE provider has to offer anything but voice transfer over distance.

    Besides … one more thing. My company has Verizon contract for all our cell phones. Fortunately, we are global company and a lot of people travel outside of U.S. a lot of times. Therefore, we also have another GSM-native carrier phones for travel outside of U.S. Guess what? I do not have Verizon phone, I asked and was given OK to use the other company’s phone as my permanent cell-phone in U.S. and out of U.S. What’s his reason to stay with Verizon if he is unsatisfied so much? I chose to show them middle finger and enjoy the experience with other carrier … and it wasn’t even MY phone.

    Sorry, Chris, no cigar. Ignore this.

  • Rebecca

    And a participation trophy.

  • Ben

    Texting and text relay service is not a suitable substitute for an actual conversation. Would you accept it if you could only text and not make voice calls?

  • AMA

    But he’s DEAF. He can’t hear voice calls!

  • jmtabb

    What he’s asking for is the right to make unlimited video calls at the same cost as unlimited phone calls.

    Phone, Text and Video are all different.

    Video calls are an awesome option when there is wifi available. When there is no wifi available, then text calls offer a very reasonable way to communicate when a voice call isn’t possible.

    It’s the same for those of us in the hearing world – cell phones are an incredible piece of technology and convenience when out and about, but they are not guaranteed to work everywhere, and not guaranteed to be “free” everywhere. Roaming charges still exist, don’t they?? They do when traveling internatonally for most. When we don’t want to pay for those calls when in a roaming area, our options are to find a spot where there are no roaming charges, use data/technology to make a free call over wifi/skype, use the cheaper options of texts or find a land line.

    Mr. Hergert’s options are essentially the same.

  • Regina Litman

    One word:

    Sprint

    A carrier that still has unlimited data for phones.

    Sent from my Android Samsung brand phone on Sptint’s data network.

  • David___1

    What does “on the road” mean? Does it mean he’s driving and using a video chat service? That seems pretty unsafe to me. Does it mean he travels for business? If that’s the case, the solution is pretty simple. Most phones will attach to a WiFi network. Mine does. And when it’s attached to WiFi all my data runs through the network, not through Verizon.

  • John Baker

    He’s already using a relay service so what he’s doing now isn’t an actual conversation. The only difference is the delivery method.

  • Joe Farrell

    I’m thinking simple texting solves his problem. . . .

  • Rebecca

    Thank you for an honest, relevant perspective.

    The irony here is Alexander Bell was working on the technology that became the telephone because his wife was deaf (and had been since an early childhood disease, if memory serves me).

  • Ben

    A video relay service is much closer to a real-time conversation than texting or a text relay.

  • Ben

    It was an ANALOGY to enable a hearing person to understand the situation and empathize with the user. A video call for a deaf person is analogous to a voice call for a hearing person.

  • jh

    Yes, BUT! Talking on the phone is not a right. However, there are many many instances where everyone is required to accommodate a person with other impairments. If Hergert’s impairment is great or if it originated at or near birth, he may also have trouble speaking. Offering hearing-impaired persons access to the TTY service seems reasonable. However, the extra free time needs to be tied to the hearing impairment so scammers can’t get to it. Is this possible?

  • Jeff W.

    Here is a question. Is he asking only for himself to be exempt from these various video conference calls? I only ask because he has to be communicating with someone else. Do those people also need unlimited data, or is he the only person communicating over cellular and everyone else in his circle is a landline?

    While he has a point about being able to communicate, I think his argument loses something from the over-the-top hyperbole. There are other carriers that offer this. There is texting There is using wi-fi.

    Verizon would need to be able to differentiate the data from the voice calls as opposed to Netflix. I am sure they can do it, but those exact controls may not be in place. Not sure.

  • random_observation_source

    No one is blocking his right to communicate, he just needs to pay a little extra to accommodate his specific needs (or at the very least, find a better wireless plan).

    Individuals in wheelchairs face the same dilemma; no one blocks their ability to drive, but they need to pay $10-$20k more than everyone else to get specially equipped vehicles to accommodate them.

  • Pat

    First, cell phone service (voice, text, and data) is not a right.
    Second, the attitude of entitlement gets you nowhere fast.
    Third, just because you have a disability, it does not mean free. It is great that there are apps that provide help with disabilities. But that does not mean they have to be free. There are ways to communicate that do not eat up data and cost money. But he has made a choice that does use data and costs extra money, so he should either pay the extra money or change to a cell phone service that will not cost the extra money.

  • Tom McShane

    What could it hurt? I am almost certain that no one in the history of the world has ever been harmed by a participation trophy. Each week tens of millions of people get a form of participation trophy. It’s called a paycheck. They may not have been the number one dermatologist or food service worker in the nation that week, but, by golly, they participated.

  • taxed2themax

    I have empathy for him as I do think he has a legitimate disability that may adversely impact his ability to use services that others who do not have the same condition, at or in the same manner and charge level.
    That said, to me this should be addressed at the Federal level either thru the FCC or other agencies who have regulatory authority or thru the legislative body for a more formal codification.

    I don’t think this should be done at the individual consumer level as I don’t want an inconsistent solution. I’d prefer one standard that levels the playing field for all carriers as well as consumers and addresses eligibility, costs and other issues.

  • Mel65

    My first instinct is that if he’s traveling for work and using all this data, his employer should give him a phone and plan that will meet the business need. I carry both a personal and business phone (provided by my firm), because I didn’t want to use up my plan gift their benefit. If he’s wanting to chat to family and friends while traveling for leisure, I have to admit I’m less sympathetic because there are work arounds.

  • Nathan Witt

    Firstly, Mr. Hergert’s “basic human right to a phone call” has not been violated. I know this because he makes phone calls. His argument seems to be that he has a right to make a different kind of phone call without paying extra. This might be analogous to someone with Celiac’s disease demanding that the grocery store sell them gluten-free food for the same price as the regular variety. I get that sucks when an illness or disability steals your chance to work within the same parameters as everyone else, and I get that it’s piling on to charge you extra for what you need. But I also get that, in the same way that gluten-free food can cost more to make than the gluten-containing variety, high-speed cellular data transmission costs more to provide than CDMA voice service. That said, Verizon’s future and profitability would not be hurt if they offered every hearing-impaired person unlimited data to and from any video relay service’s site, and doing so would probably be the “right” thing to do. I hope you advocate for him, Chris, and I’d be interested in knowing the outcome.

  • AMA

    Verizon would need to verify that each person who claimed to be deaf, was, in fact, deaf. How could they do that? Wouldn’t hundreds of people claim to be deaf in order to get the lower rate on video? It would be impractical.

  • AAGK

    The title, as in the forums, definitely makes the guy seem unreasonable. However, he did have a rational grievance. While the phone companies all claim to have services geared to the disabled, I am sure the accomodations fall short. Mr Hergert needs to align himself with disability groups that lobby Congress and meet with company executives for this kind of reform. He could even begin with a letter to his local representative.

  • Bill

    They should all be burned!

  • LFH0

    I had the same reaction: there is no basic human “right” to be able to call people. Telephone service is a utility for which people have the option of subscribing or not. This is a case of perceived discrimination, based on disability, as to the public utility service provided, and not a case of denying any “right” to making telephone calls. Without having reviewed any prior case law, there might actually be actionable discrimination here, but this is a matter for a disability attorney who is able to help define the law, not a consumer advocate.

  • Nathan Witt

    I’m suggesting that only data connections to video relay sites be unlimited. These sites involve a live interpreter using sign language to facilitate a call between someone who cannot hear a live voice call and someone who can. If a hearing person really wanted to waste everyone’s time and try to use a video relay service, then, yeah, I guess they could abuse the privilege, but it seems pretty unlikely.

  • KarlaKatz

    But, but, but… Isn’t the right to make phone calls in The Constitution? You know, that Article 0, the one just after the Right to carry a “service” turkey onto a plane.

  • KarlaKatz

    Amen to that.

  • Chris_In_NC

    “I think we all know the answer. It may be more obvious than the answer to Hergert, actually. Verizon is probably discriminating against him, but I’m a consumer advocate, not a disability lawyer.”

    So out of scope for a consumer advocate. He needs to contact a disability lawyer.

  • Bubbles

    The OP did mention that he doesn’t directly call people. He still uses a service that relays the sign language to another individual who interprets and repeats it to another individual. So it, in fact, is a relay service of differing capability.

  • Fishplate

    I’m confused. Aren’t ASL conversations conducted in English? And don’t most entities that provide ASL service for the hard of hearing translate spoken English into ASL, and vice versa? If so, wouldn’t a working understanding of English be the only way such a service be of any use to anyone? Or does ASL have a different grammar and sentence structure from English?

    Clearly Mr. Hergert has a pretty good comprehension of reading and writing in English, so a text-based service would address his particular problem to some degree, even if it takes longer to communicate. After all, as I understand it, his problem arises only when he is away from an Internet connection.

  • jim6555

    T-Mobile’s data plans give you a certain amount of 4-G LTE data each billing month that you pay for. Should that limit be been exceeded, the network still allows you to use an unlimited amount of data, but at 3-G rather than 4-G speed. When a new billing month begins, your 4-G speed is reinstated.

  • Mel LeCompte Jr.

    Entitled mentality. Texting solves 95% of his issues. Period.

  • LonnieC

    Might I suggest that any basic human right be limited to 911 calls? And I could agree that Verizon should offer text services for such calls at no additional charge. Should be a simple programming thing to do. Beyond that, a basic human right? I think not.

  • cscasi

    I have had T-Mobile for well over a year now (I switched from AT&T and its high rates) and I have unlimited calling, texting and data. The only issue is, when I go over 3 GB of data usage the speed slows down on the data. But, I still have as much free data as I need. Perhaps he should look at other carriers and find out what they offer. I do not expect Verizon to give him free unlimited data.

  • cscasi

    So, what company are you suggesting that has good network quality in all locales? I hear people complain about all the companies they use as far as that issue goes. None are perfect. One just has to decide which one works best for him/her and go with it; change if it does not work out.

  • cscasi

    Second word – T-Mobile. It still has unlimited data for phones in its plans.

  • cscasi

    “Yes, BUT! Talking on the phone is not a right”. Wonder why there has been the free OBAMA PHONES?

  • Travelnut

    ASL has different grammar than English. It is indeed another language.

  • pauletteb

    He lost my sympathy when he demanded the same for his wife, who, as far as we know, is NOT deaf.

  • pauletteb

    Some deaf persons are vehemently opposed to cochlear implants! Seems that every group has its prejudices.