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August 17, 2004

Equal Access to Emergency Services

From: WHNT, AL - Aug 17, 2004

Melissa Stephens Reports, 8/17/04

A non hearing couple in Huntsville become victims of an attempted home invasion on Tuesday. The case begs the question, how does a person who doesn't hear or speak call 911 in an emergency?

Investigators on the scene said it was very difficult for officers to understand what the couple was telling them because they didn't know sign language. Elease Wade and her husband Charles Edwards were limited to gestures and writing on a notepad to tell their story. Police do have sign language experts on call, but valuable time can be lost waiting for that person to arrive.

While Elease Wade ran to a neighbor's house for help to call 911, she also had the option of using a teletypewriter or TTY. It's a telecommunication device that's helps non hearing people communicate with emergency operators over the phone.

"Some of them will tell us they're deaf and they use TTY, and we pull up our TTY program and talk to them through the computer," explained Alexa Bowers, a 911 operator. With TTY, a non hearing, nonspeaking person can type back and forth, rather than talk back and forth, on a phone call.

All 911 operators go through training to learn the special type of shorthand used for the device, and then a deaf person can communicate as easily as a hearing person. "They can feel as safe as anyone out there," Bowers said.

In 1991, the Americans With Disabilities Act made it a requirement that all people with severe hearing and speech disabilities be provided with equal access to emergency services like 911. That's when TTY was developed.

No one was seriously injured and nothing was stolen in Tuesday's attempted home invasion, but three suspects are still at large.

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