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October 29, 2004

Service bridges gap between deaf teacher, students' parents

From: Dallas Morning News - Dallas,TX,USA - Oct 29, 2004

By TOYA LYNN STEWART / The Dallas Morning News

For Gayle Villarreal, a deaf education teacher at Arlington's Miller Elementary School, finding a way to communicate with her students' parents has always been a challenge.

In the past, Mrs. Villarreal, who is deaf, routinely relied on interpreters or resorted to writing notes. Or she's used a teletypewriter – a device that allows deaf and hearing people to type back and forth using phone lines.

This year, Mrs. Villarreal has another option. It's called the Sorenson Video Relay Service, and it allows the teacher to call and talk to anyone using sign language.

"The communication is wonderful," said Mrs. Villarreal, who communicated through Heather Moulton, an interpreter at Miller Elementary. "I prefer it."

"Deaf people are very expressive. We use American Sign Language," she said. "With [the Sorenson VRS], I sign with a person, and I can use expressions."

The deaf user signs to an interpreter using a videophone such as the Sorenson VP-100.

During the video relay call, the interpreter contacts the hearing user via a regular phone line. The interpreter relays the conversation by using sign language communicated by the deaf caller and by speaking to the hearing person.

The video relay calls are placed using a high-speed Internet connection to the videophone, which is connected to a television.

If two deaf people want to communicate, and they both have the equipment, they can simply call each other and sign back and forth.

"It's a real-time interpreter," Mrs. Villarreal said. "When I call on a [teletypewriter], I put the phone down on it, call the number, and I type what I'm saying.

"When I'm typing on the TTY, I feel like it's not really my language," she said. "Now I can call people myself and talk to them."

Mrs. Villarreal, who began using the equipment in class about six weeks ago, is the only teacher in a Texas public school using the system, said Cameron Tingey, a sales representative for Utah-based Sorenson Media.

The company created the technology and provides interpreter services at seven centers around the country. Several community colleges and universities in Texas have the system, as does a school for the deaf in Austin.

"We have worked primarily with colleges and universities," Mr. Tingey said. "Just recently we've started putting this in K-12 schools."

The Dallas school district has expressed interest in the technology and will have students meet with company representatives to see whether they like the system and would feel comfortable using it, a district spokesman said.

The videophone retails for about $250. But the entire system – including the equipment, installation and training – is free to deaf or hearing-impaired people.

They must complete an application on the company's Web site,

Those requesting the system need to supply the high-speed Internet connection, but other funding is subsidized through the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The company is reimbursed for the minutes the calls are interpreted, but not for the equipment, installation or training.

So far, the biggest benefit has been to Mrs. Villarreal, who is using it to communicate with parents, teachers and others.

Miller educators say they hope the students will learn to enjoy such freedom after becoming familiar with the system.

Once the students master sign language, educators want them to be able to call home to ask whether they can go to a friend's house after school or call in a pizza order.

Mrs. Villarreal said the equipment has already been a success, and she's pleased with the reaction her students have had to it.

"Kids can call someone and ask questions, or they can call home and use the interpreter," she said, adding that the system helps students practice using American Sign Language with people outside of the classroom.

"Before, some of them didn't understand what a phone was for," she said. "Now they get it."


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