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March 19, 2005

IP relaying makes communication easier for the deaf

From: Naples Daily News, FL - Mar 19, 2005

March 19, 2005

As a deaf 16-year-old, Russell Kane didn't know how to ask a cute classmate out on a date.

So he bribed his sister Lesley (with $1) to make the call. She relayed the "no thanks" back to him.

Kane, 40, now teaches social studies to deaf students in White Plains, N.Y., and can make phone calls through a service called Internet Protocol (IP) relay at his convenience.

"Deaf boys can easily use IP relay to call girls and ask them out whether they are hearing or deaf," he wrote in a text message response.

IP relay is a new and evolving service in which operators transcribe phone calls over the Internet in near-real time to people who are deaf or hard of hearing and then read their instant message replies back to the hearing caller.

While relay services have been available through phone companies for the last 14 years, and extended to the Internet in the last two, deaf people can now use them to connect to instant messaging and wireless text messaging programs. They can receive calls directly to their home numbers and no longer need teletype machines to display messages.

Kane, who was able to get rid of business cards cluttered with multiple voice, assistant and teletype phone numbers, said the service has kept him in better touch with family and friends while reducing once awkward communications.

"I find it so easy with doctors and offices. I give them my new number, and they can call me and leave a message instead of bothering my work secretary," he said. "I feel more empowered in my own life, more independent, much happier."

With MCI, America Online last July launched "My IP-Relay," which enabled its instant messaging software AIM to make and receive IP relay calls. Tom Wlodkowski, AOL's director of accessibility, said it was a response to the great popularity of instant messaging in the deaf community.

"Instant messaging hit a home run," he said, "because for the first time a deaf user could communicate with anybody using a mainstream technology."

Within the first 30 days of My IP-Relay's launch, he said, 100,000 calls were made through the service. There was little marketing, but within the deaf community, Wlodkowski said, "word travels fast."

Jamie Berke, 40, a Web developer who writes about deaf-related issues on the community information site, wrote that instant messaging relays are "the greatest thing since sliced bread."

In the middle of repairs to her home in Washington, Berke can receive relayed phone calls from contractors directly. "It is so, so much easier for hearing people to be able to call a regular phone number," she wrote.

Anthony Tusler, a technology policy researcher at the World Institute on Disability in Oakland, Calif., said that despite good intentions, many deaf people are isolated even in the workplace. Instantaneous communication tools like e-mail and instant messaging are changing that.

"Until instant messaging came along, it was really problematic for me to talk to deaf colleagues, so I had a tendency not to," he said.

Traditional teletype, or TTY, services were too expensive and cumbersome, whereas instant messaging has "a much richer language to use."

IP relay services are a step up from TTY, said Gisele Ragusa, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education who specializes in deaf education. "I suspect that we will move away from TTY completely in industrialized nations and much more in the direction of IP relay," sje said.

Mike Mendrin, 54, an independent contractor in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., was born with 90 percent hearing loss. Before IP relay services became available, "Driving around all day was part of my life, since that was the only way I could do business with people," Mendrin wrote in a text message response.

And his social life? "Bleak," he wrote.

Now he conducts business with subcontractors and city officials through relays. At home he keeps in touch with friends through AOL. The technology has made "a tremendous impact on my life and work," Mendrin wrote.

Deaf youth have particularly latched onto the IP relay services, said Gary Packwood, a community liaison at the Houston Health and Human Services Department.

"It is a great confusion to the rest of us as to how they can type that quick with their thumbs," he said.

It doesn't hurt that many young people, regardless of their hearing, are adept at text and instant messaging, Tusler said. "The coolness factor you can't ignore."

Not that every phone call is welcome. A few weeks ago, Kane signed up for a free vacation drawing at the mall. Signing to his friend Christine that he included his phone number, she warned him that he would start getting telemarketing calls as a result.

"Great! Now I feel normal just like everyone else," he told her. "I feel like I belong."


Andrew LaVallee is a master's candidate at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.)

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