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May 8, 2003

Video makes phone calls easier for the deaf

From: Chicago Sun Times, IL - May 8, 2003

BY ART GOLAB Staff Reporter

It used to take June Prusak 15 minutes to leave a message on an answering machine.

Prusak is deaf. Until two months ago, when she wanted to call a hearing person on the phone, she had to use a special keyboard-equipped phone to painstakingly type back and forth to an operator who would be on the line talking with the person at the other end, relaying what Prusak said.

Now, when Prusak wants to contact the hearing, she uses American Sign Language over a two-way Internet video connection to "speak" to an operator who interprets for her, telling the person on the other end what Prusak is saying and signing back what they say in return to Prusak.

"It's so much better," Prusak said in a phone interview, using the system. "I can use my first language to express myself fully and easily."

Many deaf people feel more comfortable communicating in ASL, a complex visual language using combinations of hand and facial gestures.

"A lot of deaf users are not fluent in English, it's almost a struggle for them to communicate exactly what they want to say over a keyboard," Prusak said. The VRS, or video relay service, "is nice because we are able to communicate emotions with our faces, and the interpreter is able to express more fully what we are saying."

The service is free, funded by telecommunications carriers. It's operated by Communications Services for the Deaf, a national not-for-profit organization, and Sprint, the telephone giant. It just celebrated its first anniversary by opening its ninth call center in the offices of the Chicago Hearing Society.

The local operation is staffed by 17 interpreters from the Chicago Hearing Society. Each call center takes calls from all over the country. Nationwide, the centers process "tens of thousands of calls per month," said CSD spokesman Rick Norris.

One roadblock is that some who might use the service don't all have the high-speed Internet connection that's needed for a smooth and fast video connection. An inexpensive video camera plugged into the computer is the only other requirement.

To make a call, a deaf person logs on to the Web site www. and types in the number to be called. The image of the interpreter pops up in a window on the computer screen, and the interpreter alerts the person on the receiving end that a call is coming from someone using the VRS. Hearing callers can dial (866) 410-5787 toll-free and give the user ID of the deaf person they want to call.

Prusak, a youth program manager at the Chicago Hearing Society, said of the new technology: "I love that you can interrupt each other. It makes it a lot easier to carry on a true conversation."

Copyright 2003, Digital Chicago Inc.