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July 14, 2004

Word out: New access for deaf

From: Salt Lake Tribune, UT - Jul 14, 2004

By Bob Mims
The Salt Lake Tribune

For Sorenson Media, hiring the deaf isn't just the socially enlightened thing to do. It has proved to be a decisive competitive advantage.

The Salt Lake City video compression and services company credits its 150 deaf or hearing-impaired employees -- nearly one-third of Sorenson Media's work force -- with more than 80 percent of its revenue in the past year.

The catalyst? The Sorenson VP-100, a paperback-sized videophone device that, hooked to a television and fast Internet connection, provides deaf clientele access to the company's Video Relay Service (VRS).

VRS, also available via a personal computer, Web cam and Sorenson's EnVision software, allows a deaf person to see an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter who then calls a hearing user via standard telephone line and relays the conversation in real time.

The system, which alternatively allows two deaf users to sign to one another, transmits video at 30 frames per second, providing an image that James L. Sorenson, the company's chief executive, boasts is unprecedented in quality.

"It's been a great thing for us and for the deaf community as well," he said Tuesday. "We've developed a solution for the deaf that is proving quite popular. And rather than trying to use hearing employees . . . we utilize the deaf to go into their own community to install and train the deaf in using the technology."

Pat Nola, chief operating officer, says that is a formula that has made Sorenson Media the nation's No. 1 provider of VRS services -- ahead of such giant competitors as Sprint and AT&T -- since launching the service 16 months ago.

"Because of the way the deaf culture works, they really like to have someone they are comfortable with come and show them how the technology works," Nola said.

Sorenson's deaf service representatives, along with several hundred ASL interpreters, give the company's VRS program "a real competitive advantage," he added.

Sorenson donates the VP-100 and router equipment, worth about $250 per customer; so far, about 10,000 of the units have been given out.

While the privately held company does not disclose specific fiscal results, Nola confirms VRS business drove most of Sor- enson's 600 percent revenue growth over the past year. The equipment may be free, but the company -- which handles 130,000 video-relay calls per month -- is reimbursed by the Federal Communications Commission at the rate of $7.29 per minute per call.

But there's more of a payoff than that, Nola stresses.

"In 20 years in the high-tech business . . . I've never before had customers come up to me crying because they were able to talk to their hearing daughter, or have a phone call with their doctor," he said. "It's not just technology we're putting out there; we're really helping to improve lives."

It is a point recognized by Gov. Olene Walker's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, which honored Sor- enson as its 2004 Golden Key Employer of the Year.

"Sorenson Media . . . [has] a demonstrated commitment to meeting the needs of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community as well as fostering economic development in our state," Walker said of the award.

Added Ron Nelson, president of the Utah Association for the Deaf: "Sorenson Media has enhanced the quality of lives for deaf and hard-of-hearing people with their innovations. More of our people are embracing their technology."

For Jon Hodson, the deaf director of National VRS Outreach for Sorenson, the value of his company's technology is in its ability to level the business playing field for the hearing-impaired, and broaden their career horizons.

Previously, the deaf had been limited to "TTY," or text telephone devices in making calls -- a welcome, though time-consuming and often frustrating, technology that falls short of approximating real conversation.

"With VRS, I can go ahead and sign as fast as you can speak to me," Hodson said through interpreter Stephanie Webb. "We can express our emotions, our thoughts and feelings.

"That is much easier and more natural than the TTY relay," he added, noting so much of ASL meaning is conveyed by facial expressions in conjunction with hand signs.

Hodson is even more excited by the future for VRS technology.

"A mobile VRS is the next step," he said. "Some day, hopefully, the technology will be there for us to interact, with something like a Palm device perhaps, instead of always typing on our pagers back and forth."

Video Relay Service for the deaf: Interested people can apply for the service on the Web site

© Copyright 2004, The Salt Lake Tribune.