Relay services open comm channels for deaf users

Relay services open comm channels for deaf users

By Trudy Walsh

GCN Staff

Before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990, most deaf people in the United States grew up not knowing how to use a telephone.

That changed in the 1990s. ADA required all states to provide state-funded telecommunications relay services (TRS) to hearing- and speech-impaired people.

Telecommunications providers promptly stepped in to fill the need. Sprint Corp. has the largest market share, providing TRS to 27 states, including a contract it has held with Texas for a decade.

Sprint recently began providing video relay services in a few test areas. Deaf people can sign their messages to a relay operator over videoconferencing equipment. The operator speaks the message over a regular telephone to the hearing person, and then translates the hearing person's message into sign.

One of the benefits of video relay is that signing is much faster than typing, said Mark Seeger, customer relations manager for Sprint Relay. 'And you can interrupt, you can understand nuances and facial expressions. It's like the difference between speaking in a foreign language or using your native tongue,' he said.

The majority of Sprint's managers who support its relay services are deaf or hard of hearing, Seeger said.

'We bought them all videoconferencing equipment, and our internal communications improved tremendously,' he said. For video relay, Sprint uses 128-Kbps Integrated Services Digital Network lines, Seeger said.

Video relay services are a long way from the first telecommunications devices for the deaf, or TDD machines, which were teletype machines from Western Union of Englewood, Colo., now a subsidiary of First Data Corp. of Atlanta, Seeger said. The machines are still referred to as TTY machines, an abbreviation of teletypewriter.

Seeger, whose parents were deaf, was a young child when his family got a TTY machine. It was a huge, gray-green machine from Western Union, Seeger said, and it took up half the living room. Now TTY machines are about the size and shape of a desk calculator.

TTY users have a broad range of hearing and speech impairments, Seeger said. They include persons who are deaf or hard of hearing, and those who have had a laryngectomy.

Sprint's text-based TRS operations run on its public fiber-optic lines. TTY machines transmit text using Baudot code, a five-bit telecommunications standard that was invented by French telegrapher Jean-Maurice Emile Baudot in the 19th century. Although as communications technologies go, Baudot is ancient, it's a very stable code, Seeger said.

In a typical relay call, a TTY user in Texas calls the state's dedicated 800 number for relay calls.

The call is answered by one of Sprint's relay operators, who reads the message the caller typed in. This first message would be something like, 'Please dial Joe's Pizza.' The operator dials Joe's Pizza, typing back to the caller as the phone rings, 'One ring, two rings'' When the pizza shop answers, the operator says, 'This is Relay Texas. I have a call from a text telephone. Have you ever received a relay call before?' If the person answering says no, the operator explains the process.

The caller types on the TTY, 'I would like to order a large pepperoni pizza with extra cheese. Go ahead.' 'Go ahead' is the relay term that signals that it's the other person's turn to talk, much like a police officer's 'over' on a walkie-talkie.




Extra cheese

The relay operator reads the message aloud to the pizza shop worker. The person says to the operator, 'Do you want deep dish or thin crust?' The operator then types the question to the deaf person.

Sprint operators can use this process with two deaf parties if they both have TTY equipment. The relay operators are the heart of Sprint's TRS, Seeger said. Most operators are not hearing impaired, although Sprint employs several visually impaired operators who rely on braille keyboards.

Each operator goes through a rigorous screening process. Video relay operators have to be certified by a state or national licensing agency that they are fluent enough in American Sign Language to translate medical, legal and personal communications.

TTY users need to be able to trust relay operators completely, Seeger said.

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