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By Suzanne Robitaille Minutes before a staffwide conference call with the head of his brokerage firm in late September, Danny Lacey logged onto the Internet and contacted a Sprint Corp. relay center in Texas. A communications assistant appeared on Lacey's laptop via a Web camera. Then Lacey, who is deaf, sat back and watched as the Sprint operator relayed the entire call in sign language at the same time that hundreds of his colleagues at Kramer Financial in Austin listened in. Lacey even asked questions in sign language that the operator relayed verbally to the audience. Lacey says this was the first time he was able to participate on an equal footing with the company's other financial advisers.
Lacey's call is one of the most exciting examples of how the Internet is helping deaf, hard-of-hearing, and even speech-impaired people communicate fluidly with the hearing world. The Video Relay Service (VRS) that Lacey used has gained rapid acceptance since its introduction earlier this year. In addition, deaf people now can hold phone "conversations" by sending typed questions and answers via a laptop or personal digital assistant to an intermediary employed by the phone company, who then speaks the written words to the hearing person on the other end of the line.
LESS RESTRICTIVE. That approach is far superior to the former state-of-the-art -- the clunky, nonportable teletype (TTY) machine. About the size of an old Bell telephone, the TTY is a terminal with a keyboard that a deaf person can use to type messages to a phone company operator, who reads them to the other party on the call. The TTY's tiny screen can display only one or two lines at a time, and it must be plugged into an outlet and connected to a landline, which restricts its use and makes it passé in a world gone mobile.
Having the option to make a business call outside of the office via a laptop or PDA is a huge advance for the deaf: It makes them more competitive with other workers and job seekers, and thus more employable in the corporate world. They're also less likely to ask employers for face-to-face sign-language interpreters or real-time captioning, a service that's similar to court stenography and can cost $200 an hour.
By contrast, Lacey, who regularly participates in conference calls from his office, uses video relay and its sign interpreters for free, whenever he wants. "With video relay, the time and cost obstacles are virtually nonexistent," he says. "It's really easy for me to call my hearing clients at a moment's notice."
NO EXTRA CHARGE. Sprint and AT&T have spearheaded efforts to put telecommunications for the deaf onto the Web, largely because they already have exclusive contracts with state agencies to supply traditional TTY services. Moreover, the Federal Communications Commission requires that telecoms try to make their products and services accessible.
With the deaf population proving to be lively communicators on the Internet via e-mail, chat, and instant messaging, Sprint and AT&T chose the Web as an inexpensive way to meet federal requirements and improve communications for some 54 million deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans. What's best about these services is that they're entirely funded by state agencies, users simply pay long-distance charges.
The most basic service -- the one that emulates TTY -- is called Internet Telecommunications Relay Service, or TRS. Deaf people log onto Sprint Relay Online or AT&T Internet Protocol Relay Service and use their computer keyboard to dial a number that connects them to a communications assistant, who converts written messages into spoken words.
JUST LIKE I.M. The TRS sites of Sprint and AT&T have the look and feel of the instant-messaging platforms that already are common on the Web. Their interfaces provide a choice of text and background colors, and Sprint's lets users punctuate their sentences with stylized emoticons, such as a smiley or sad face -- representing a laugh or angry tone of voice. Users can save, print, and e-mail their entire conversation log, an advantage for business calls. They can also choose relay operators who speak Spanish or French Creole.
For the more mobile set, Sprint just launched PCS Vision Service. With a Handspring Treo phone, the hearing-impaired can make calls on a PDA via the Internet, similar to the way they would with a laptop. While users typically pay wireless service charges of around $45 a month, plus the cost of any long-distance calls, the new service is free. "Internet protocol is the technology of the future for those with hearing disabilities," says Mike Ligas, vice- president of Sprint Relay. "They will soon have the same mobility that hearing users have."
Deaf or hard-of-hearing people who choose to use their own voice have an even faster option, called two-line voice carryover, or VCO, which requires only the Internet and a standard phone line. This service is an excellent backup for those who can hear a little but not enough to make a truly independent call.
INVISIBLE LIAISON. At the Sprint or AT&T Web sites, they can instruct the operator to call them on their landline or cell phone. They then use the conference button on their phones to dial the party they're calling. The operator becomes an invisible liaison whose only job is to type what the hearing caller is saying into the Web site's dialogue box, while the deaf or hard-of-hearing people speak for themselves.
At the other end of the spectrum is a service for those who can hear but have lost their ability to speak clearly. For this group, phone companies offer speech-to-speech services -- just the opposite of text-to-text telephony. Communications assistants who are trained to understand a variety of speech listen -- and then enunciate the message clearly to the hearing party. Speech-to-speech services are available on both landline and cell phones.
Video relay is likely to be the preferred salvation of people who describe themselves as completely deaf -- and who rely on sign language or lip reading, or a combination. This technology -- the kind Lacey uses -- is provided by Sprint through a partnership with USA VRS and is based on widely available videoconferencing software, such as Microsoft NetMeeting.
"MORE CONNECTED." People who are completely deaf say video is more effective than its text-based counterpart because sign-language operators are trained to convey not just the words of the caller but also the mood. Since it requires no typing, it eliminates delays and makes video an excellent alternative for someone who prefers sign to English. "VRS is very human-like. I feel more connected, and I can express my emotions," says Rene Pellerin, a deaf vocational counselor in Waterbury, Vt. Lacey says his ability to communicate with clients has improved vastly since he started using video in August.
Internet technology for the deaf isn't perfect yet. For one thing, poor image quality can hinder a video call. Though many shrug off grainy or slow images while reading signing via a computer, others get a headache or become frustrated. Lip reading is also affected by jerky video, as small distortions in timing can throw off even the best lip readers. It will take better broadband to fully mitigate such problems.
The bottom line is that the deaf and hard-of-hearing still can't make truly independent -- meaning unassisted -- calls. That will require speech-to-text technology that goes beyond current software. But for now, phone companies deserve applause for putting their services on the Web and for making communications faster and more convenient for millions of people who for decades have had to work extra hard to keep up in a hearing world. Robitaille writes Assistive Technology, only for BusinessWeek Online