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July 21, 2005

'Hands On' business bridges the communication gap for the deaf

From: Auburn Journal, CA - Jul 21, 2005

By: Keith Reed, Gold Country News Service

In perfect silence, Mark Bella speaks excitedly and passionately about his career.

Without uttering a word, Bella tells of how his company is bridging the gap of communication between the estimated 28 million deaf and hearing impaired Americans and the rest of the population.

"Our goal is to provide communication access to every deaf person in America," Bella said through interpreter Julie Franklin Friday. "With technology advancing, it's just a matter of time."

Bella is one of 18 deaf people who work at Hands On in Rocklin, a video relay service and call center that allows people who are deaf or hearing impaired to communicate over the telephone using high speed Internet and a Web camera.

Bella is the company's special projects manager.

With its district office and main call center located on Menlo Drive in Rocklin, Hands On has 24-hour call centers in four different locations in California and Washington.

Its video relay service software, which requires a computer (Macintosh or PC) or a television with a special relay device and camera, is free to qualified citizens across the United States.

"We are completely federally funded," Bella said. "Our services are required by the Federal Communications Commission. Our funds come from fees charged by telephone companies. We service all of the United States and Puerto Rico."

Bella said some versions of the Hands On software integrates with America Online and other Web browsers so it can be more easily used and visually enhanced.

In a demonstration of the Hands On service, engineer Wayne Betts of Roseville turns to his computer, clicks on his America Online buddy list and clicks on the friend he wants to call.

Operator and trained interpreter Rebekah Schwartz then appears on his computer screen. Using sign language, Betts, who is deaf, introduces himself to Schwartz and she then patches his call through.

When the person Betts is calling picks up, the voice they hear belongs to Schwartz.

"Hello, my name is Rebekah Schwartz, I am an interpreter with Hands On Video Relay Service. I will be interpreting for Wayne Betts ..." Schwartz says.

Then, the call between Betts and his friend begins.

Betts said he is not only proud to be working for a company that provides a service he uses every day, but he is thankful for the way Hands On has created a deaf-friendly culture in the office place.

"It's easily the best and easiest atmosphere I've ever worked in," Betts said through Franklin's interpretation. "It couldn't be much better for a person who is deaf."

The duties of an interpreter at Hands On can be a very stressful job. Hands On puts their interpreters through extensive training - teaching them to be an impartial third party who keeps out of the conversation.

"It is human nature to get involved. It's easy to become emotional," Bella said. "It's a learned skill to be impartial. We allow them to switch out with a different interpreter if they become too emotional."

Schwartz has been an interpreter her entire life. Daughter of two deaf parents, sign language is her first language.

"I am working here in part because I fully understand the need for these services," said Schwartz, a Natomas resident.

Schwartz said she came to work at Hands On because company CEO Ron Obray, who was out of the country and unavailable for comment, also has two deaf parents.

Bella said the company will be opening call centers in Rochester, N.Y. and Cincinnati, Ohio. It recently merged with GoAmerica, a public company that provides Internet and wireless technology products for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

"We are excited about the future of communication," Bella said.

Keith Reid can be reached at

Copyright 2005 Gold Country Media. All rights reserved.