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February 4, 2003

Net Widens Phone Options for Deaf

From: Wired News - 04 Feb 2003

Phoning in an order for a pepperoni pizza can be a cumbersome process for a deaf person, but new telecommunications services may deliver a better way.

AT&T recently announced its Video Relay Service, which provides another option for deaf and hearing-impaired people to communicate with those who can hear.

Using a PC, webcam and high-speed Internet connection, a deaf person signs in American Sign Language to an interpreter. The interpreter then speaks to the hearing person on the other end of the line.

The service is free and available nationwide.

Here's how a deaf or hearing-impaired person might currently order up a pepperoni pie: Using a TTY or a TDD (telecommunications device for the deaf), the customer types her order on the special keypad and transmits the message to an operator, who relays it by speaking to pizza parlor staff. This process is called traditional relay.

But translating between American Sign Language and English can be tricky.

In ASL, the caller may order a pizza with "large, round, red things" to indicate pepperoni. That makes sense in a visual language like ASL, but is confusing when spoken in English.

"(VRS) is much easier than the traditional relay," Mitchell Levy, an account manager at AT&T Relay, who is deaf, said through a translator. "It's more natural, it's faster and there's no lag time."

A similar VRS is also available from Communications Services for the Deaf.

"VRS is very exciting," said Judy Harkins, director of the Technology Access Program at Gallaudet University. "It is and will be extremely useful to people who can sign, as it is much faster and more natural for people on both sides of the conversation -- more equivalent to voice conversation than text methods can be."

Levy said the service will also simplify business calls for the deaf, which are commonly more complex than ordering a pizza.

Before technology like VRS catches on, however, broadband access must become widespread. Currently, the technology is limited to those who can afford the necessary equipment and a broadband connection, which isn't even available in all areas, Jim House, a spokesman for the Telecommunications for the Deaf, wrote in an e-mail.

The number and variety of telecommunications options for the deaf has ballooned in recent years: e-mail, instant messaging, pagers and video conferencing have all been welcome technologies.

"We did not have this many options five years ago!" House wrote. "Now I can pick and choose whichever method I want to use to communicate with someone."

But even with the development of new telecommunications applications, TTY is still an important link between non-hearing people and the world. It's the only way the deaf can reach 911.

At the same time, TTY is an outdated analog technology that will eventually be relegated to the basement.

A growing number of digital networks such as voice-over IP may cause problems for deaf callers using the analog system.

"Some of these systems save bandwidth by greatly compressing the speech signal," Harkins said. "The compression results in severe garbling of TTY as key bits of information are left out. Also, when the data are sent through an IP system, packet loss occurs. The effect of packet loss on TTY is much worse than the effect on voice quality. It is often impossible for the TTY user to know what is happening when garbling occurs."

"TTY is insufficient today for many reasons," wrote Frank Bowe, a professor at Hofstra University, who is deaf, in an e-mail. "It's very slow. It's cumbersome. It's analog. One cannot edit."

Ideally, what is needed is a digital phone that would include the ability to type and have a text conversation in addition to a voice conversation, Harkins said.

"The basic phone calling of TTY needs to move forward into a digital format that's standardized and accommodated in a wide variety of telephone systems," Harkins said. There are different TTY protocols around the world and "with the global economy, companies want to have a global solution for the whole world."

"If you happen to call a deaf person's house, you wouldn't have to have any specialized equipment," she said. "If this is standardized, then everyone's (digital phone) will work with everyone else's, just like phones do now."

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