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April 8, 2004

New system helps deaf communicate

From: Times Picayune - New Orleans,LA,USA - Apr 8, 2004

Local agency has equipment available

Thursday April 08, 2004

By Joan Treadway Staff writer

Twenty fingers are flying -- bending and straightening at lightning speed.

Henry Brinkmann, who is sitting in front of a laptop at the Deaf Action Center in downtown New Orleans, is communicating by sign language with a woman hundreds of miles away, an interpreter at a service center in Silver Spring, Md. He is watching her on his computer screen; she is seeing him on hers.

Brinkmann, the program manager of a state-supported agency called the Louisiana Relay Service, is demonstrating the first step in a new system the agency is making available to its clients in Louisiana. In the second step, the interpreter will place a call for Brinkmann, who is deaf. He will be able to "talk" to a hearing person by signing to the interpreter, who will speak his message aloud to the third party and sign the response to Brinkmann.

The program, called visual relay service, is becoming popular nationwide, Brinkmann said. His agency is offering free equipment and installation for deaf and hard-of-hearing people who want the service.

At the Deaf Action Center, a program of Catholic Charities, people can use the system to make a call, program administrator Shari Bernius said.

It's speedier than the system that's long been offered by the relay service -- telephone-linked equipment on which deaf people type out their messages, Brinkmann said. A communication assistant at another location reads the communication aloud to the hearing person, and types the response back to the caller.

Emotions will be easily conveyed, along with words, as the interpreters tend to make facial expressions that show when someone involved in the communication call is angry or sad, Brinkmann said.

Many deaf people are simply more comfortable communicating while seeing a human face -- even if it's the interpreter's, Bernius said. And it could be a face they know; deaf people can communicate by video directly to one another or to hearing friends with the right equipment, bypassing the interpreters entirely.

The equipment needed includes small cameras called videophones when they're atop a television and webcams when positioned on computers, said David Krail, director of information technology for Catholic Charities. In either case, a high-speed Internet connection is also needed to transmit the images to a remote spot.

Although the Louisiana Relay Service offers free small cameras and helps clients set up the equipment, they must provide their own Internet connections, Brinkmann said. He expects demand to rise after he starts publicizing the new service.

Another factor that will boost demand is that it's likely to appeal to baby boomers who become hard-of-hearing with age, Brinkmann said.

About 480,000 people in Louisiana have hearing impairments, he said.

People with hearing problems can contact Brinkmann by calling (800) 846-5277, then giving the communication assistant his number, a teletypewriter at (225) 295-3193. Callers with normal hearing can call (800) 947-5277, and give the same number.

Bernius can be reached at the deaf action center at (504) 310-6869. The number of her telecommunication device for the deaf is (504) 525-3323.

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Joan Treadway can be reached at or (504) 826-3305.

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