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February 28, 2003

Internet now allows deaf to dial in

From: Mid Columbia Tri City Herald, WA - 28 Feb 2003

By Annette Cary Herald staff writer

A few months ago when Hugo Contreras of Pasco wanted to make a phone call, he had to ask for help.

Because he cannot hear, sometimes his wife would make the call for him. Other times he used American Sign Language to tell a brother or sister what he wanted to say and they translated the conversation into the telephone.

"Or I'd just not call at all," he said.

Now Contreras makes his own telephone calls, using a video relay service available at the South Eastern Washington Service Center of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Pasco. It's changing the way deaf people use the phone.

Logging onto the Internet, he now signs the telephone number he wants to call into a Web camera. A sign language interpreter places the call, then interprets sign language into spoken words to link deaf clients with the hearing people they call.

Translations are available in English and Spanish.

On the screen is a picture of Contreras, his fingers, arms and even the muscles of his face in motion as he communicates. An interpreter who will sign back the replies is on the other end of the line.

On Tuesday he stopped by to call his employer to check his work schedule and to place a call to his Spanish-speaking mother across town.

"It's really changed my life," said Mauricio Zarate of Pasco, as he signed into the computer after Contreras.

"A lot of times friends will want to make phone calls for me, but I want to be independent," he said. "So if I need to make phone calls, I come in and do it myself."

The service is paid for by all telephone users. Federal law covering disability issues requires long-distance telephone companies to pay a percentage of the money they collect into a national telecommunications relay services fund.

It's the same way that the more traditional text telephone, or TTY system, is paid for.

Traditionally, deaf or hard of hearing people who didn't rely on family and friends for help with phone conversations have had to communicate by phone by typing what they want to say into a TTY. Then there would be a long pause while that's translated for a hearing person and the reply is typed back to the deaf person.

Not only does the video system work much faster, but many people who use it also are more comfortable using American Sign Language, often their first language, rather than written English or Spanish.

It's also closer to having a real conversation.

Speakers can interrupt each other as people normally do when they are talking, and interpreters convey the body language and facial expressions that are an integral part of sign language and the tone of spoken conversations.

"It helps the caller better feel out a certain situation," said Jason Smith, videoconference coordinator for the Pasco center. "If a person starts to get frustrated or annoyed, they can know it."

Interpreters across the nation take video relay service calls 24 hours a day. People with a computer, Web camera and high-speed Internet camera can use the service at home.

But for those who don't, the Pasco center makes its video relay service connection available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday. Spanish interpreters work only limited hours nationally, but the Pasco center can access them some hours most Tuesdays and Thursdays.

In January, the center's system was used for calls for 1,339 minutes, nearly evenly split between calls interpreted into Spanish and English.

Because the Internet is used, it makes no difference whether people are making a doctor's appointment across town or calling friends in Mexico, as Zarate likes to do.

Demand is high for calls on evenings and weekends, and the Pasco center can sometimes accommodate people by appointment, Smith said.

But Smith is looking for libraries, agencies or businesses willing to dedicate a computer to offer free video relay service for the deaf and hard of hearing. Not only could that expand hours when the Tri-City deaf community can use the video relay service, but it also would improve access for people who do not live near the Pasco service center.

The service will be demonstrated to the public from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at the South Eastern Washington Service Center of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, 124 N. Fifth Ave., Pasco.

© 2003 Tri-City Herald, Associated Press and other wire services.