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June 25, 2005

Device lets deaf say, 'Call me on my cell'

From: - Des Moines,IA,USA - Jun 25, 2005

The technology is available for wireless phones after years of use on land lines.


Ken Still bought a cell phone for the same reason many people do.

"If I'm in my car and it breaks down, I can call and not have to worry for someone to come and help me," he said.

The 42-year-old Ankeny man has been deaf since childhood, but he is just entering the wireless world. Teletype devices - TTYs - that allow the deaf to make calls are now available for cell phones. Still bought his wireless compatible device this spring.

The deaf and hearing-impaired can hold telephone conversations through a "relay service." Deaf callers type into a keyboard, and an operator relays the words to a hearing party. Spoken communication appears as words on the TTY screen.

Starting July 1, Iowa cell phone customers will start paying 3 cents a month per phone number to support the relay service. The charge should appear as a line item on customer bills.

Gov. Tom Vilsack signed a bill this spring to support the service, called Relay Iowa. The Iowa Utilities Board oversees Relay Iowa, though the service itself is contracted out to Hamilton Telecommunications, an Aurora, Neb., company that provides relay services in nine states.

The state launched Relay Iowa in 1992 after the Americans with Disabilities Act required states to provide telephone service for the deaf. But the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees wireless carriers, did not require the wireless industry to make its networks compatible with TTY communications until 2002.

Wireless carriers weren't initially included in the funding because they were such a small part of the market 13 years ago, explained Joni Nicoll , program manager for the utilities board.

Some states have included wireless carriers in the financial support of relay services. But Nicoll said that for the last three years the wireless industry has resisted similar efforts in Iowa.

Dave Duncan, president of the Iowa Telecommunications Association, which represents independent phone companies, said everyone supports the program.

"But all the different users who benefit from the program should pay their fair share," he said.

U.S. Cellular spokesman John Simley said wireless carriers support Relay Iowa but disagreed with initial proposals that would have charged as much as 12 cents per phone number.

"The cost per line, we thought, was out of line with the cost to operate the program," Simley said.

Besides paying for relay service, the company contributions also support a program that defrays equipment costs. Still received a voucher to help pay for his $300 TTY.

Some deaf people favor new devices, such as pagers with small keyboards. But Still said pagers are too expensive, and they're not eligible for the utilities board vouchers.

Since buying the wireless TTY, Still has dropped his land-line phone. He said he uses his U.S. Cellular service about as much as he used his land line. Now his phone is always in his pocket so vibrations alert him to calls.

Unexpected calls send him into a rush.

"I need to hurry and set up all the equipment and open it up before the relay hangs up on me," he said.

How it works

Teletype devices allow deaf and hearing-impaired people to make phone calls. Here's what happens:
1. Deaf callers type into a keyboard of a Teletype machine.
2. An operator relays the words to a hearing person.
3. Spoken responses appear on the hearing-impaired person's Teletype screen.

To use the service

To place a call using the service for the hearing-impaired, dial 711, or (800) 735-2942 (Teletype), or (800) 735-2943 (voice).

More information

Information about Relay Iowa can be found at

Copyright © 2005, The Des Moines Register.