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June 15, 2003

Can you hear me?

From: Leesburg Daily Commercial, FL - Jun 15, 2003

Deaf and hearing service agency assists impaired in Lake, Sumter

Daily Commercial Staff Writer

LEESBURG When Deaf and Hearing Services of Lake and Sumter Counties gave Dale Greenawalt a free telephone, he was surprised.

The 68-year-old, part-time Eustis resident had only stopped in as a favor to a neighbor who has trouble hearing and getting around.

He was familiar with the program that gives specially equipped telephones to the hearing impaired because his mother-in-law had received a new telephone from a similar organization in Clearwater.

"They signed her up there," he said. "It's a terrific phone. It really is."

Greenawalt didn't believe he would qualify despite having difficulty hearing, though, because he only lived in Florida for part of the year.

Ron Dahly, president and executive director of Deaf and Hearing Services of Lake and Sumter Counties, said that as long as Greenawalt owned property and paid taxes, he was eligible to receive the telephone.

"It's our most popular program," Dahly said of the free telephone distribution. "They come to us or an audiologist to sign up for it. We ship them out in about four weeks and then come out to install them. We give away about 700 or 800 a year."

With just a staff of two and a handful of volunteers, the free telephone program keeps the non-profit agency pretty busy.

Started in the early 1990's in someone's home as a way to provide interpreters, the Deaf and Hearing Services of Lake and Sumter Counties has expanded to offer free hearing aids, baby monitors, alarm clocks, adult education classes, signing lessons and instruction on lip reading.

Dahly said people with hearing impairments are invited to the offices to test various gadgets before taking them home, just to make certain the product will be loud enough for them.

Alisse Rasmussen, a board member, said she has a friend that sleeps with a vibrating alarm on her chest so that it will wake her up.

"I can hear it from across the room but it isn't loud enough for her on the mattress," she laughs.

Despite having only about $200,000 a year in funds, the organization is trying to expand.

"We started a program about a year ago called 'Hear Again.' It's the only one like it in the state. Low income people in the need of hearing aids that don't qualify for assistance elsewhere can come to us and get them," Dahly said. "We ask people to donate used hearing aids to us. We take the used hearing aids and test them. Audiologists donate their time. We pay for testing and re-casing the hearing aid."

During 2002, the organization gave away 16 hearing aids. By March 2003, they had already given away the same number.

Dahly said the organization is anxious to expand its hearing aid loaner program into the Sumter County School District as well.

"We're providing loaners if Lake County students break theirs right now. A lot of times parents are afraid to get a loaner if a child has a problem with their hearing aid because if it gets broken the parent has to pay for it," he said. "If a kid breaks ours, there's no charge. We're also providing children hearing aids if they don't qualify under other programs. We're very anxious to help the children."

If the organization can raise enough money to hire a full-time interpreter, staff members would like to see a localized communication much like Sprint's USA Video Relay Service developed to help deaf people communicate with doctors through the Internet and a Web cam without having to call in an interpreter.

The USA Video Relay Service allows a hearing impaired person to log online and use sign language to convey a message via Web cam to a Sprint operator. Much like with the traditional TTY system, an operator then calls the message recipient.

Unlike the traditional TTY telephone communication system, pauses are filled on hearing impaired person's end by the operator signing both questions and responses during the call.

If Deaf and Hearing Services of Lake and Sumter Counties is able to establish the localized communication program, the full-time interpreter would also have Internet access and a Web cam to help patients communicate with doctors and hospitals.

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