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January 8, 2004

A critical link

From: Malden Observer, MA - Jan 8, 2004

By Kristin Erekson / Correspondent

MassRelay helps Malden couple communicate by phone

A Malden deaf couple have been communicating over the telephone for two and a half years.

How can that be?

Thanks to a service that uses a live operator to relay conversations, the Munro family can use the telephone to communicate.

Pierce Street residents Greg and Michelle Munro use the Massachusetts Relay Service as a vehicle to converse with deaf and hearing people over the telephone. The couple found out about MassRelay just before they moved to Massachusetts.

They noticed a magnet on a friend's refrigerator with the name and number of the service and inquired more about it. They learned that MassRelay is a 24-hour free line that enables deaf or hearing people to transmit messages to a relay operator by telephone or teletypewriter (TTY). The trained operator then provides exact transcriptions and messages to the desired caller.

"MassRelay is a terrific service that provides us with the ability to make phone calls anytime and anywhere," the Munros wrote in an email interview with the Observer. "Most importantly, deaf people or whoever is making the relay call will always be empowered to control the conversation as naturally as possible with the assistance from the MassRelay operator."

The service is available only in Massachusetts and has been in existence since 1992. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires each state to have a dual party telecommunications service, according to Mark Sommer, the MassRelay customer service and outreach manager.

Prior to MassRelay, the only telecommunications service offered was run by an independent living agency operated by volunteers, which obviously led to many restrictions. Some of the limitations were that calls were limited to 15 minutes and that the service was only available at certain hours. MassRelay is able to bypass those previous constraints, to provide callers with the best service.

"I can...tell you that we conduct close to a million outbound calls a year," wrote Sommer, who was also interviewed by email. "There are approximately 750,000 residents of Massachusetts who can benefit from use of this service, not to mention those who do not have a TTY who use MassRelay to reach those who do."

MassRelay is publicly funded and there is no access charge or use charge. The completed calls are dependent on the rates for local, regional and long distance calls. Some long distance companies do offer discount rates for relay calls

MassRelay operators also permit customers to use direct-dial, third-party, collect and calling cards. In addition, any individual that passes the qualifications of the Verizon Specialized Equipment Distribution Program can receive telecommunications devices, such as a TTY or amplified phone, for either free or a reduced cost, according to Sommer.

Though a conversation made through MassRelay may seem slightly disjointed because people converse through an operator, it is faster and more efficient than using e-mail. Deaf people also can speak with others who do not have a TTY and they also do not have to rely on talking to others through the computer. Most important, MassRelay allows deaf and hearing people to get an immediate response on whether the desired party is available.

"The interaction of a live conversation using our TTY and MassRelay provides us with the immediate information we are seeking, such as ordering a pizza or booking a dentist appointment," said the Munros. "Also, our important contacts, such as our veterinarian, neighbors or doctors, are able to return our calls to our TTY from their regular phones via the MassRelay service."

Sommer admits that MassRelay did experience a small decline in service because of e-mail, but it has evened out since MassRelay is more of a "real-time experience." Callers may be impressed by the new features the service offers such as spell check (similar to the spell check in Microsoft Word) and caller ID delivery.

The Munros also do not feel that the service helps connect them to the "hearing world" but instead sees it as a bridge between two different modes of communication. Hearing people can use their voices to communicate whereas deaf people use their TTYs. MassRelay simply helps to connect the two together.

"The [MassRelay] operators are committed to making sure that our calls proceed as smoothly as possible," the Munros wrote. "We've used other states' relay services, and MassRelay is up there...So we've been fortunate to have such a reliable means of telecommunication when it comes to making and receiving calls."

Additional information on MassRelay can be found on its Web site,, or from a customer service representative at 800-720-3479 (Voice) or 800-720-3480 (TTY).

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