HELENA – The state observed the 30-year anniversary of the Montana Telecommunications Access Program in a Wednesday celebration at the Capitol rotunda that featured a few people talking, some through sign language, about how the program has changed their lives for the better.

The program, run through the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS), helps people who are deaf and hard of hearing use telephones and offers equipment and services to those with disabilities who have difficulty in using the phone.

“Communication is a key part to people surviving and thriving,” Laura Smith, deputy director of DPHHS, told several dozen people at a gathering in Helena.

State officials said 2,544 pieces of the special equipment has been distributed over the past five years. They also said the program, also known as MTAP, has 1,457 clients in 182 Montana cities.

MTAP was established during the 1989 state legislative session, in response to the Americans with Disabilities Act, requiring that governments provide equal access to telecommunications services for those with disabilities. It oversees relay operations 24/7 for Montana as well as an equipment distribution program. Relay services provide a link for those who use a communications device and people who use a standard telephone.

The program has had its challenges, as most programs do, Gov. Steve Bullock said.

But he said it was important for the state to not lose “sight of those we are serving and do everything to meet their needs.”

MTAP provides free equipment to Montanans who qualify under the income guidelines, state officials said. The limit for free equipment is 250% of the federal poverty level. For a single person, it’s around $31,000, and increases by about $11,000 for each additional individual in the family. 

MTAP is governed by a 13-member board appointed by the governor. Members include relay users, telephone industry professionals, state agency representatives, a public safety answering point representative and others who meet quarterly to aid staff in making decisions and determining the direction of the program. 

Beverly LeMieux used sign language when she told attendees that the equipment helps the hard of hearing become more independent and are able to access any type of phone service.

Ron Bibler, MTAP board chair and certified financial planner who runs his own advisory and investment management firm out of Great Falls in which he makes 200 relay calls a month, said that 30 years ago he could not make a telephone call.

But he joked, through the aid of the MTAP equipment, “Like you guys, I can be driving down the highway at 70 miles per hour and talking on my phone.”

For more information or to receive an application, contact MTAP at 800-833-8503, email to relay@mt.gov, or complete the application online at montanarelay.mt.gov.