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July 15, 2003

Opening communication lines

From: Las Vegas Review-Journal, NV - Jul 15, 2003

Conference features new devices to help hearing-impaired stay in touch


Talking on a cell phone or watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster are activities most Americans take for granted. But for members of the nation's deaf and hearing impaired community, they can still present a challenge.

This week, an estimated 300 deaf, hard-of-hearing, late-deafened or deaf-blind people have gathered at Henderson's Green Valley Ranch Station to take part in a conference sponsored by Telecommunications for the Deaf Inc., a nonprofit advocacy group based in Silver Spring, Md. Organizers hope the event and subsequent efforts could soon bring about increased access to technology among the hearing impaired.

"Without captions we can't enjoy a movie or without a special device, we often can't use a cell phone," said James House, member services director for the organization. "Initially, some in the communications industry may have reservations (about developing deaf-accessible products), but after you work together things progress and they see we all can come up with a solution."

New products on display at this year's show, which opened Monday and runs through Wednesday, include CapTel, a $495 captioned telephone that uses voice-recognition technology to quickly display a second party's spoken words on a screen that's viewed by a hearing impaired user. The product, which is now awaiting approval from the Federal Communications Commission, has so far been tested by users in 13 states, said Pam Frazier, spokeswoman for CapTel manufacturer Ultratec.

NXi Communications Corp. of Salt Lake City and co-developer MCI Communications Corp. were also on hand to tout Nextalk, which now allows hearing-impaired users to communicate simply by connecting to the Internet and typing in text. At no cost to the user, an operator verbally relays the typed words to others via telephone, said developer Tom McLaughlin. The product is more flexible than previous systems that required a dedicated modem line instead of an ordinary Internet connection, he added.

Loretta King, deputy assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice's civil rights division, praised the businesses' efforts.

"For Americans without disabilities, technology makes things easier," King said. "For Americans with disabilities, technology makes things possible."

Over the past 12 years, the largest segment of discrimination claims filed with the Justice Department have involved the deaf or hearing impaired, King said. Though progress has been made in areas such as television closed captioning and improved access to many government services, she compared today's challenge of ensuring widespread deaf-accessible telecommunications with the nation's recent struggle to make public buildings compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"It's essential that we see that these barriers, like the architectural barriers that preceded them, are overcome," King said.

King expressed faith that additional changes could soon result from a program called the New Freedom Initiative. Approved by President Bush in February 2001, the plan increased federal funding to private sector companies that develop new technologies accessible to the hearing impaired, as well as supports low-interest loans for consumers who need to purchase assisted technologies.

Further help could also come from a 1998 change in the so-called Section 508 laws that require all electronic and information technology products purchased by the federal government be accessible to the hearing impaired, King said.

"The government is using its purse strings to bring about changes," said King, who believes products initially developed for government use will soon spill over into the public marketplace to the benefit of the general population.

When market factors alone fail to ensure adequate access, those in the deaf community should alert the government of accessibility issues, said K. Dane Snowden, chief of consumer and governmental affairs for the FCC.

"This is the only way we'll know there is a problem," Snowden said. "Those complaints are taken very seriously."

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