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December 14, 2006

Relaying the message Program helps businesses connect with state's deaf, hard-of-hearing

From: The Free Lance-Star - Fredericksburg,VA,USA - Dec 14, 2006


ORDERING PIZZA, calling information or making an appointment are all routine tasks for most of us.

But for the hearing or speech impaired, placing a simple phone call can be a slow, arduous task, especially when the person on the other end hangs up.

The Virginia Relay Partner program is opening the lines of communication by connecting businesses with deaf or hard-of-hearing customers trying to reach them.

Established in 2005 by former Gov. Mark R. Warner, the program provides businesses with free training materials on how to accept Relay calls.

"One of the complaints for many consumers was that businesses did not really understand what Relay calls were," said Clay Bowen, the Virginia Relay manager at the state's Department for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, in Richmond. "They were hesitant to accept them or they would hang up."

To place a Relay call, individuals with hearing loss or speech impediments call the Virginia Relay Center using a phone adapted with a keyboard or text screen.

They type their message, which is dispatched to a Relay operator.

The operator then reads the caller's message to the person or business being reached.

Between 2,500 to 3,000 calls per day are made through the state's Relay center in Norton, which is operated by AT&T.

Some businesses hang up on Relay callers because of fraudulent Relay taped calls, Bowen said.

So, calls made through the Virginia Relay Center are traced.

"We want to make sure that businesses understand that if they get a call that's introduced, that it's a legitimate call," Bowen said.

And now businesses can see their customers' phone numbers on their caller IDs instead of the relay center number.

"That has helped on the number of hang-ups," Bowen said. "At least you know who the call is from, and you've got their number."

The Relay Partner program also provides businesses with accommodations for their own hearing-disabled employees, such as signaling devices, video communication and captioning equipment.

So far, 247 businesses in the state have signed up for the Relay Partner program, according to VDDHH.

Local businesses also are taking advantage of the free service to educate their employees about Relay calls.

As a new business, Carmel Church Rentals joined the Relay Partner program to reach out to potential customers who may have hearing or speech disabilities.

"Those people have the same needs" as everyone else, said Linwood Thomas, owner of the equipment rental company in Ruther Glen. "We thought it might be something as a new business we could become connected to or affiliated in the community."

Bark N' Bubbles, a pet grooming service off U.S. 1 in Spotsylvania County, became a Virginia Relay Partner three weeks ago.

The pet grooming business in Southpoint II has several deaf customers, including a woman who brings in her Briard aid dog, said W.D. Smith, the store's owner.

If she does call, "now we can definitely talk with her," Smith said.

There are 642,000 deaf or hard-of-hearing adults in Virginia, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

Hearing disability experts say signing up for the Relay Partner program can open businesses up to an untapped customer base.

"I really feel this will help businesses advertise to the deaf and hard of hearing individuals in our community, who will know which businesses are really Relay friendly," said Arva Priola, the outreach coordinator at the disAbility Resources Center on Progress Street.

To reach KAFIA HOSH:540/735-1977

Copyright 2007 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.