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July 5, 2004

Statewide relay services help deaf communicate by telephone

From: Pittsburgh Post Gazette, PA - Jul 5, 2004

New campaign promotes 711 service for those with speech, hearing difficulties

Tuesday, July 06, 2004
By Linda Wilson Fuoco, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Making a telephone call to order a pizza is usually quick and simple. It can become an annoying ordeal, however, when the pizza shop employee repeatedly hangs up on you. Multiple hang-ups also occur when you call your auto repair shop to find out when to pick up your car.

It happens even in doctors' offices when you call for test results. It happens all the time to people who are deaf, hard of hearing or speech-disabled when they try to reach out and touch someone via the telephone.

It shouldn't happen at all, because ever-improving technology with Telecommunications Relay Services has made it possible for those with hearing and speech difficulties to make and receive phone calls. The problem is, so few people who don't have these problems are familiar with how the services work.

A two-year, $1 million awareness campaign hopes to change all that. It's been launched by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and AT&T, the state's relay service provider, to teach the general public how to make and receive calls with the relay service.

"PA RELAY. Spread the Word! Communicate by phone with people who have hearing or speech loss," read billboards and posters that are popping up throughout Pennsylvania.

Ever hear of 711? That's the number you dial to hook up with the relay system. A 2003 study found that fewer than 9 percent of Pennsylvanians could identify the number or its purpose, said PUC Commissioner Kim Pizzingrilli.

By comparison, about 98 percent knew that 911 is the emergency number and 79 percent knew that 411 is the number to dial to get telephone assistance.

Pushing this cause as spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Relay Campaign is Christy Smith, a contestant last year on CBS TV's "Survivor: The Amazon."

Smith says she signed on to the campaign for the same reason she auditioned for the reality TV show: "All my life I have been trying to promote awareness of the deaf community."

Totally deaf since birth, Smith, 25, of Colorado, can hear minimal sounds with the help of a hearing aid. She is a proficient lip reader -- a skill that helped her spy on Survivor rivals as they whispered and plotted out of earshot. She was the sixth person voted out of the tribe, which started with 11 contestants.

Smith is able to speak, which not all deaf people are able to do. But her clear and well-enunciated speech creates misunderstandings. "Because I can speak, people think I can hear," she said.

"It's quite amazing the impact being on Survivor has had on the hearing community," Smith added. "It has helped with community service programs and has provided some excellent feedback."

As for the Pennsylvania campaign, Smith said: "What's needed is awareness of how to use the relay system. I am hoping that people will wake up to the need to use this service."

Smith uses a video relay. She and the operator each have a television screen and a video phone. Smith used sign language which the operator sees on her own screen. The operator then translated that sign language to "regular" language which she related to me. When I had a question, the operator used sign language to convey my words to Smith.

There are delays as the operator translates. It's a bit awkward going through a "middle-man." A relay call lacks the spontaneity of a "regular" telephone call, and it takes some getting used to. But it's doable.

"It really is not that difficult" to use relay systems, "but try convincing the repairman who is supposed to call and let you know when he is coming," said Marie Drew of Canonsburg, in the monthly newsletter of the Pittsburgh chapter of Self Help for Hard of Hearing People, commonly referred to as SHHH.

Drew uses a voice-over method, known as VCO. She is able to speak to people on the phone, but she can't hear what they are saying. Her callers need to give the message to the communications assistant, who will type the words which will appear as printed text on Drew's TTY -- a teletypewriter equipped with a keyboard and screen. It's the most frequently used form of the relay.

"I tell them just dial 711, listen to the instructions. ... I tell them they must call me this way in order to have a conversation.''

She pays extra for voice mail, which she can access with special equipment, and communicates by e-mail when she can.

"...As a late-deafened adult, I can tell you the isolation of deafness is terribly difficult,'' Drew said in an e-mail. "That is why any means of communication is so important to us.

"Have you heard that when they asked Helen Keller if she would choose blindness or deafness, she said she would choose blindness because sight cuts you off from things. Hearing cuts you off from people. You have to be there to understand."

(Linda Wilson Fuoco can be reached at or 412-851-1512.)

For more information, including detailed tips on making and receiving relay calls, go to the Web site, or call toll-free 1-800-682-8706.

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