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October 31, 2008

Keeping the deaf connected

From: Daily Press - Newport News,VA,USA - Oct 31, 2008

Melanie Paul, of Hampton, is deaf and uses the Sorenson Video Relay Service to communicate.

October 31, 2008

After using the same bank for 25 years, Melanie Paul expected them to accept her call. Instead, they hung up.

"They said, 'I'm sorry we cannot accept these types of calls,'" Paul said, referring to an assisted phone service that many deaf people rely on to make calls. "Then I call back and tell them that I am deaf, and to please not hang up on me again."

The problem is a lack of knowledge when it comes to the Sorenson Video Relay Service, a communication service for the deaf community that has been around for four years.

The Sorenson VRS allows deaf people to communicate with each other one-on-one, as well as with the rest of the public through an operator. It is a free service, offered 24 hours every day, for deaf people.

Paul has not always been deaf, but due to a wrong diagnosis when she was 12 years old, she lost 90 percent of her hearing. Paul can read lips quite well.

"I would say 99 percent of deaf people use the Sorenson now, so there's a need for the public to be more aware of it. The public is still only used to the old way of communicating, the TTY, or telephone typewriter, where the person types out what they want to say," said Paul, who has used the Sorenson for more than two years. "Now, we have the Sorenson, which allows us to communicate much better with one another."

The system works through a remote and video phone that rely on an Internet connection and a TV. The deaf person dials the number on the remote, and then an operator comes on to direct the call. The operator and the deaf person can see each other. From there, the deaf person can sign what they want the operator to relay to the person on the other end of the phone. The system also allows two deaf people to communicate directly, by seeing each other on the screen and signing.

Any deaf person can request a Sorenson VRS by visiting After the device is hooked up, there is a short training session.

While the Sorenson VRS allows for better communication for deaf people, the problem is education.

"Agencies, companies and doctor's offices are not aware of the new system," said Paul, an outreach consultant with the Virginia School for the Deaf, Blind and Multi-Disabled. "When you call using the Sorenson, an '800' number pops up, which makes people think it's a telemarketer, so they hang up."

The "800" number isn't the only problem encountered by people using the Sorenson.

"If you can get someone to pick up and not hang up on you, then they hear the operator say, "This is the Sorenson Video Relay Service," and the person on the other end either becomes confused or just hangs up, because they don't know what is happening."

So what can be done to solve the problem? Paul believes more awareness and education about the new system and how it works is the answer.

"Many deaf people who are speech-impaired call just like everyone else, so we need to be understood, and that means understanding how the Sorenson works," said Paul, the first deaf person to graduate from the College of William and Mary with an advanced degree.

"I know it's frustrating for them too, when they answer the phone and there's a man telling them that a 'Melanie Paul' is calling. They just need to take the time to have it explained to them."

© 2008, Newport News, Va., Daily Press