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December 26, 2004

Phoning becomes easier for deaf

From: Lincoln Journal Star - Lincoln,NE,USA - Dec 26, 2004

BY NANCY HICKS / Lincoln Journal Star

Norman Weverka sits in front of a 27- inch television set in his office talking to the screen in his native language, American Sign Language.

A small video camera perched on top of the Panasonic television set records his hands in motion.

Weverka, a field representative for the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, is talking on the telephone, using the latest in communication technology for the deaf video relay service.

The camera sends Weverka's image to a relay operator in Silver Spring, Md., who interprets the signs and relays Weverka's message (in spoken English) to a hearing person on a telephone elsewhere in the nation.

This video relay equipment is faster than the traditional TTY (teletypewriter) equipment, where the deaf person types in a message that goes to a relay operator. The operator then types back messages from the speaker on the other end of the conversation, which are displayed for the deaf person.

It is more comfortable than the TTY equipment because the deaf person can communicate in his native language American Sign Language. But it hasn't become a standard yet because it requires a high-speed Internet connection, more pricey than a monthly telephone bill.

Currently around 15 people in Nebraska, primarily in Omaha, have the video relay equipment, Weverka said.

Much of the rest of the deaf community uses the TTY equipment, which is funded through a 7-cent fee on everyone's landline telephone bill.

Rita Johnson sits at a desk in her Lincoln dining room typing messages into her TTY phone, which looks like a small computer, about 10 inches square, with a small keyboard, little screen and a printer.

Johnson talks to friends, to doctor's offices and others by typing her message and by reading the response of the other person on the TTY screen or a printed version that scrolls out the top of her machine.

Johnson, who is president of the Lincoln Association of the Deaf, uses a similar machine for telephone calls at work, where she enters data for the Nebraska Department of Property Assessment and Taxation.

All Nebraska landline telephone users help pay for this more than $900,000-a-year relay system, which allowed deaf and hearing impaired people in about 725 Nebraska households, to use a telephone last year.

The relay service is required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed in the early 1990s.

Before the ADA, many in the deaf community used teletype equipment, donated by railroads, to talk with each other. Big communities, like Lincoln, had a relay service, but just for local calls.

And many deaf people lived without the benefits of a phone.

Johnson said she relied on her in-laws or children to make her telephone calls in the days before new technology and the 711 relay service.

The ADA also created a new business for Hamilton Telephone Company in Aurora, which provides local telephone service in central Nebraska. The company had some inbound call center experience and connections with the deaf community before the it bid and won the Nebraska relay system contract in 1990, said company vice president Dixie Ziegler.

Today Hamilton Relay operates relay services for nine states, and the Island of Saipan, a U.S. territory. Iowa will join this system in January, Ziegler said.

The company has about 300 employees and works out of three call centers, in Aurora, Baton Rouge, La., and Madison, Wis., Ziegler said.

And it has moved beyond the traditional 711 relay service for people using teletype machines.

The company also manages the video response center in Maryland, using certified American Sign Language interpreters who provide service nationally, she said.

And the company provides Internet connections that give deaf and hearing impaired people new ways to talk with each other and the rest of the hearing world.

Weverka has lived through this transition, from no phone to a world of hand-held personal computer assistants.

"I can't wait to see technology progress to where some day it's equal to our hearing peers. I am looking forward to the day I will be able to use a cell phone like everyone else," he said in an e-mail interview.

"I know it's not far down the road."

Reach Nancy Hicks at 473-7250 or

Free demonstration

The latest communication equipment that can be used by the deaf and hard of hearing will demonstrated from 9 a.m. to noon Jan. 8 at Southeast Community College, 301 S. 68th Place (formerly Gallup).

* Always-on Internet access. Test DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) and cable options to experience enhanced speed, video, and sound (compared to traditional dial-up).

* Video conferencing. D-Link VideoPhone takes advantage of the Internet to unite family and friends without a PC computer, if you choose.

* Captioned telephones. CapTel-brand phones relieve confusion, converting conversations dually to sound and readable text.

* Wireless systems. Blackberry-brand wireless connectivity integrates telephone, e-mail, messaging, browser, and daily organizer applications into a single handheld device.

Sponsors include the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Nebraska Relay Service, Time Warner Cable, Alltel Communications and the Nebraska Public Service Commission.

For additional information, contact:" or 471-3593 (voice or tty) or 1-800-546-6244 (voice or tty).

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