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January 29, 2003

Signing service for deaf on Web

From: Sacramento Bee, CA - 29 Jan 2003

By Clint Swett -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 a.m. PST Wednesday, January 29, 2003
An Auburn-based company will partner with AT&T to provide sign language interpretation for the deaf via the Web in a venture expected to bring millions in new revenue to the small firm's coffers.

Hands On Video Relay Service will supply interpreters skilled in American Sign Language and the software for this system, and AT&T brings the telecommunications infrastructure.

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"This is a huge step for us to be associated with a company like AT&T," said Ron Obray, president of Hands On. "This will take our company to a whole new level."

To use the system, a deaf person with a computer, a Webcam and a high-speed Internet connection can log onto Hands On's Web site (

An interpreter certified in ASL can watch the deaf person signing and relay the information to a hearing person receiving the call. That person can reply orally, and the interpreter will sign the response back to the deaf caller.

Obray estimated that Hands On revenues could reach more than $10 million next year, up from about $2 million earned from traditional interpreting services.

And things could grow even larger. California regulators require any phone company that provides relay services such as TDD to offer a video option by October 2003.

Experts say using ASL is far easier for many deaf people than telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDD), special phones that allow a deaf person to type text.

That text is read aloud by an operator to the hearing person receiving the call, and the hearing person's replies are then typed back on the TDD to the deaf person.

ASL is used by as many as 2 million people in the United States, according to Gallaudet University, a leading college for the deaf in Washington, D.C.

For people who have not learned English, ASL is a much more natural way to communicate, said Carole Mayer, an audiologist in the department of speech pathology and audiology at California State University, Sacramento.

"It has its own grammar and vocabulary," Mayer said. "It's a very complete language."

An increasing number of the nation's 28 million people who are deaf or partially deaf use e-mail and instant messaging to communicate via computer.

But many who have been deaf from an early age have limited skills in communicating in a spoken language and often top out at a second-to fourth-grade level.

"For someone who has not learned English, it's like asking you to communicate in Italian," Mayer said. "It's almost punitive to ask them to write on a TDD or on the Internet," she said.

The service -- available only on domestic calls -- is provided at no cost to callers or those who receive the calls and is funded by money collected on every telephone bill in the country.

But that doesn't mean the service will be within reach for all deaf people. A significant number of deaf people live on limited incomes and might not be able to afford computers or expensive broadband connections such as DSL or cable modem service, which cost about $50 a month.

Still, those people could use centers that serve deaf clients, said Connie Wilbur, coordinator of the Disability Resource Center at Sacramento City College.

"There are ways around the financial problem," Wilbur said. "Overall, this seems like a good thing."

A staff of about 10 Hands On interpreters operates out of a call center in Auburn, but they will soon move to a larger facility in Rocklin, Obray said.

As business grows, he expects to recruit more certified ASL interpreters to move to the area to staff his business. All the interpreters will work in the call center, and none will be allowed to work from home for privacy reasons, Obray said.

"Confidentiality is a big thing in the deaf community," Obray said. "If a deaf person sees a kid walk (behind the interpreter), then it's over," he said.

Obray, who is hearing but has deaf parents, founded the company in 1990 to provide interpreters to businesses in the Bay Area.

He moved Hands On to Auburn about six years ago, seeking a slower pace of life. But things could get busy quickly if the relay service catches on.

Hands On has only one competitor that Obray knows, about, but that company has an exclusive agreement with Sprint. It leaves the field open for Hands On to sign on new partners, at least until another firm joins the fray.

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