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January 25, 2003

System puts deaf in picture

From: Democrat and Chronicle, NY - 25 Jan 2003

Video relays in new center open up world

By Greg Livadas
Democrat and Chronicle

Wesley Blue, an NTID student from Albuquerque, uses a video relay system to make flight arrangements. “I use it for everything I do, in every aspect of my life,” he said. “I can’t live without it now.” [Day in Photos]

(January 25, 2003) — Using technology unavailable just two years ago, a center with up to 15 sign language interpreters is set to open in Henrietta in March, enabling deaf people to communicate with hearing people via computer.

The video relay center will be the seventh such center in the country -- and the only one east of Illinois -- operated by Communication Service for the Deaf, based in Sioux Falls, S.D., said CSD spokesman Rick Norris.

For years, deaf people who cannot use a traditional telephone have resorted to calling a relay center on a teletypewriter -- or TTY -- to communicate with callers who do not have a TTY. Under that system, a communications assistant receives the TTY message, places a call to the hearing person and literally relays what each party is saying.

The process enables people to communicate, but it can be agonizingly slow because each word is typed. It’s especially slow for persons whose first language is American Sign Language rather than English.

“Video relay service is so much nicer,” said Wesley Blue, 23, of Albuquerque, N.M., a student at Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf. “I use it for everything I do, in every aspect of my life. I can’t live without it now.”

Here’s how he used it recently to buy a plane ticket for spring break:

Blue sat in front of a computer mounted with a Web cam. He called up a Web site ( on the computer, which linked him to an interpreter who dialed his call. He positioned himself directly in front of the camera, seeing the same image on the screen that the interpreter sees. Once the call was connected, the interpreter heard the voice mail selections from the airline’s recorded message and signed the information to him.

“Two,” Blue signed to the interpreter, the selection for her to press.

Blue works in NTID’s Learning Center, where several high-speed computers are available for students to make video calls.

After buying his plane ticket, Blue helped fellow student Beth Kjar, 21, make her first video call -- home to her mother in Woodriver, Neb. She mostly relies on e-mail messages.

“It’s more easy to communicate” using sign language, Kjar said.

Peter Bounsanga, 24, an NTID student from Philadelphia, used the video relay to call a veterinarian to inquire about the cost of spaying his kitten. He said he prefers using video relay because the calls are quicker and because he can see facial expressions of the interpreter.

Their reactions are typical, said Norris.

“Video relay has skyrocketed,” he said. “ It’s a nice complement to the traditional relay service. Signing is a lot more comfortable to a lot of consumers.”

The service also allows deaf callers who opt to voice their words to do so directly to the person they are calling. Then the response from the hearing individual is signed by the interpreter.

Video relay can be used only on computers with broadband connections that allow video to be played at 30 frames per second, rather than with dial-up service.

Other than the standard Web cam, NetMeeting software is required.

The calls may be made only within the United States and, for now, only for particular hours of the day.

While initial contact is made with a computer link, the calls made by the interpreters are not charged to the caller.

All long-distance fees have been waived through November. The system is funded through the National Exchange Carriers Association, with a surcharge on every phone bill -- as is the cost for traditional relay or 911 service.

Blue learned of video relay last year when Sprint -- which markets the local relay network -- handed out 200 video cameras. (A limited number of the cameras are still available. Contact Mary Beth Mothersell at

News of the center’s opening -- off John Street, next to NTID -- has spread quickly within the interpreting community in Rochester.

The site was selected because several thousand deaf individuals live in the area, as well as more than 300 sign language interpreters, said Stephen Campbell, manager of technical services at NTID. Networking capabilities were also considered.

The seven video relay centers will be connected, so if interpreters at one center are busy, interpreters as far away as Alaska could be used as easily.

But there is concern that the center would tap into interpreting resources locally. NTID, which employs about 100 full-time interpreters and more free-lance interpreters, met 97 percent of the 97,484 hours requested for interpreters on campus in 2002, said college spokeswoman Karen Black.

“For many years, students still have an issue with the interpreting department,” said Chamroeun Dee, president of NTID’s student congress.

“They are unable to provide more resources to our students’ needs due to the limit of federal budget that can be spent” on interpreting services.

College officials say budgets are only part of the problem. Finding qualified interpreters is also sometimes difficult.

Requests at the college for interpreters in non-classroom settings aren’t made so often because they often aren’t available, students and staff members say.

Yet others foresee no problem with the new relay center.

“I don’t think it’s going to drain resources,” said Michael Rizzolo, president of Interpretek, a Chili-based sign language interpreting agency. His company plans to provide about half of the 30 certified interpreters who will work there. Sign Language Connection, of Rochester, will provide the other half.

While dozens of interpreters will be working at the new center, Campbell said the pool could eventually be used to provide “remote interpreting” via the Web cams in classrooms or meetings if needed. NTID is working on a trial partnership with CSD -- which pledged 15 computers for this use -- to have remote interpreters by fall. If interpreters weren’t available at the Henrietta site, they could use others at any of their other centers.

“The benefit is we’ve got access to the entire pool,” Campbell said.

Robert Davila, head of NTID, traveled to South Dakota with Campbell last month to learn more about the project.

“Our biggest concern is that we are presently utilizing to the utmost all the available certified interpreters in the Rochester area,” Davila said.

“We will be monitoring the personnel requirements of the center and our ever-growing need for additional free-lance interpreter support so that we do not end up in a competitive stance.”

Davila said CSD pledged full cooperation with NTID.

He welcomed the center and video relay, which he said “promises to open up a valuable new channel for phone access in a desirable mode that is compatible for upstate New York’s growing deaf and hard of hearing population.”

Copyright 2003 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.