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February 17, 2003

Deaf say bye to phone frustrations

From: Oakland Tribune, CA - 17 Feb 2003

Video relay allows for communication in real time

F or deaf people such as Joey Baer, making a phone call used to be a time consuming and sometimes frustrating experience that required typing out text on a TTY device in his second language: English.

Now, the Fremont resident and other members of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community are using American sign language, their primary language, to communicate in real-time over the phone.

It's all made possible by video relay service, or VRS, a free service offered nationwide by long-distance giants AT&T Corp. and Sprint. The technology uses a high-speed Internet connection, video-conferencing computer software, a Web camera and certified ASL interpreters working out of a call center. Hearing people also can use VRS through toll-free numbers to contact deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

"It's a lot friendlier because I feel I can express myself more fully than when I'm typing and using TTY. It's a huge difference and much faster," Baer said through a VRS translator on a call carried by AT&T, which launched its VRS service in January.

Not only faster, said Baer, but speaking in sign language makes it possible for deaf people to express themselves more easily compared to typing text on a TTY device, which stands for teletypewriter. TTY is a slow process, since it requires the operator to say to the hearing person what the deaf person has typed and then type the hearing person's response. With VRS, the conversation is simultaneous.

"ASL has its own structure, its own grammar," explained Baer, a curriculum specialist who works with teachers at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont. "One word in sign language may equal two to three words in English."

Currently, AT&T's VRS service operates from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. local time weekdays and from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekends and holidays. Plans call for the service to run on a 24-hour basis, seven days a week, within the next six months.

Earlier this month, Sprint -- which launched its nationwide VRS last summer -- increased the operating hours to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. MCI plans to introduce a nationwide VRS in the coming months.

Compared to text-based telecommunications relay service, VRS is very expensive. But proponents expect costs will go down once more people are using it. And although it is more costly than text-based service, VRS is about three times as fast.

That was evident to Baer, who recalls that when he refinanced the mortgage on his home, the process was much faster and easier than if he had used text-based communication with his loan officer.

Still, Baer expects there always will be a place for text-based relay service, in part because not all of nation's 28 million deaf and hard-of-hearing use sign language or

have computers with high-speed connections.

AT&T's service contracts with Auburn-based Hands On Sign Language Services. The company was founded in Fremont in

1990 by Ronald Obray.

Obray was raised by deaf parents and worked as a staff member for 15 years at the California School for the Deaf before founding Hands On, which relocated to Auburn six years ago.

In January, the first month of operation, Hands On provided more than 233 hours of translation for AT&T's service, said Obray.

In addition to providing interpreters, Hands On has developed enhanced video conference software that can be used as an alternative to Microsoft's NetMeeting software.

"We need the best and clearest video for our interpreters to have a good view of the deaf person," said Obray. "We've tailored our software to be specific to the deaf community."

While VRS is free to both hearing and non-hearing users, provision costs are borne by the country's local phone companies. They are required to contribute a small portion of revenues collected from rates to a special Federal Communications Commission fund from which AT&T and Sprint are reimbursed for providing the service.

This federal fund -- which currently picks up the tab for both local and long-distance VRS calls -- is different from the state's Deaf and Disabled Telecommunications Program offered through the California Public Utilities Commission. Funded by ratepayers, the state program provides TTY machines, other equipment and a text-based relay system for calls placed within California. SBC has submitted a proposal for a state-funded VRS program but the PUC has yet to take action on it.

In December 2002, the federal reimbursement rate paid to eligible VRS carriers was $17.04 a minute, compared to $1.53 a minute for text-based relay services using a TTY machine or via Internet telephony, according to the National Exchange Carrier Association, which administers VRS funding.

In that same month, VRS logged 103,000 minutes while text-based relay service logged 3.6 million minutes.

"(VRS) is a new program that providers have had to invest in. And you have the expense of high-quality sign language interpreters," said Maripat Brennan, who manages VRS funding at NECA. "Those expenses can run $40 to $50 an hour.

"I do expect the (reimbursement) rates will come down," she said. "We're definitely seeing an increase in the number of (usage minutes) each month."

Mike Ligas, regional vice president for Sprint Relay, said the response to VRS has been "phenomenal" since it was launched through a partnership with South Dakota-based Communication Services for the Deaf.

"We've demonstrated the service at trade shows and conferences," he said. "Some folks have called relatives they haven't talked to in 20 to 30 years. It enables people to communicate in their native sign language. It's a much more fluid conversation."

To use AT&T's service, go to or Hearing people can call 1-888-VRS-9998. To use Sprint's service, visit Hearing people can call 1-866-410-5787.