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December 25, 2003

Technology opens doors for the deaf

From: San Jose Mercury News, CA - Dec 25, 2003

By Thomas J. Fitzgerald
New York Times

The spread of high-speed Internet access and the increasing sophistication of videoconferencing tools have given the deaf broad new access to a simple pleasure that most people take for granted: chatting on the telephone. New products and services promise to liberate the deaf from the slow text-based telecommunications systems that have been their primary option for decades.

One offering, a videophone and relay service introduced by Sorenson Media, enables users to sign with each other or with banks of interpreters who translate live phone conversations between the deaf and those who hear.

The Sorenson videophone is a breakthrough, said Genie Gertz, an assistant professor of deaf studies at California State University-Northridge, because it enables the deaf to use what many consider to be their native language -- American Sign Language -- with unprecedented simplicity and clarity. ''This is a gigantic step for the deaf community,'' Gertz, who is deaf, said through an interpreter.

Stand-alone system

The Sorenson VP-100 is a stand-alone videophone that works with a television and broadband Internet connection. It has a remote control and a flashing light that can be used instead of a ringer to signal incoming calls. Users can sign directly with another deaf person or with a Sorenson interpreter. Because of the high quality of the video, the interpreter can read the deaf user's signing while simultaneously translating and speaking to the telephone user, and vice versa.

Gertz, who was born deaf, said the videophone was vastly superior to the text-based relay services the deaf have used for years. In those systems, known as TTY or TDD, deaf users type and see text on devices connected to a phone line; both the deaf person and telephone user must wait to take turns communicating through an operator. Much is lost in the translation, especially emotions. ''It is extraordinarily impersonal,'' Gertz said.

By contrast, she said, the videophone enables her to express herself; equally important, it allows her to read the emotions of the interpreter acting on behalf of the other person. Conversing with her Russian-born parents, who are not fluent in English, always posed special difficulties with the text-based systems. With the videophone, Gertz can now grasp the facial expressions and body language of interpreters quickly and clearly enough that she can help them to understand her parents' accent.

From the telephone user's perspective, the relay service is nearly seamless. A conversation with Gertz occurred naturally and with few pauses, and the interpreter added vocal inflection and tone in a way that conveyed emotion and created a connection.

''Everything is live, and that's the key,'' Gertz said. ''People feel very much more as though they are talking to just any other person on the phone.''

The Sorenson videophone, introduced in April, has spread to 40 college campuses, including Ohlone College in Fremont, which has one of the largest populations of deaf students in the country. Ohlone has set up 11 videophone stations using a new high-speed Internet connection and televisions with 12-inch screens.

Ronald Burdett, dean of deaf studies at Ohlone, said the videophone breaks down communication barriers that still exist with TTY systems. ''It's a way for deaf people to have equal access to the same sorts of communications that hearing people have,'' Burdett, who is deaf, said through an interpreter.

Sorenson Media, the company behind the videophone and relay service, is known mainly for software that compresses video so it can travel quickly across the Internet.

The company, based in Salt Lake City, decided a year ago that with broadband Internet access becoming widely available in homes, it was time to bring a videophone to the deaf. ''We happen to be a company right in the nexus of all of this,'' said James Lee Sorenson, the chief executive.

Since the videophone was introduced in the spring and the relay service was approved by the Federal Communications Commission, the company has added new relay centers -- there are now three -- as the volume of calls has grown.

Provided at no cost

The company provides the phones and relay service at no cost to deaf users, and Sorenson estimated that 20,000-30,000 calls a month were completed using the system. More information is available

In addition to the Sorenson VP-100, several other video relay services have become available over the past 18 months. Those systems, which combine PCs with Web cameras, enable deaf people to use programs like Microsoft's NetMeeting to sign with interpreters who relay with telephone users. Telephone carriers like AT&T ( and Sprint ( as well as other companies like Hands On Video Relay Services ( offer such services.

Sprint's service allows customers to use the D-Link i2eye videophone ($199 at, which also works with a TV and requires a high-speed Internet connection. It offers the same quality of video as the Sorenson VP-100, though it lacks the deaf-specific interface.

© 2003 Mercury News and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.