Deaf, Perhaps, But Not Mute
By Ryan Singel
Apr, 13, 2006
An FCC program for the deaf sounds like the modern equivalent of ringing Mabel the operator down at the phone exchange so she can patch through your call. Assuming, of course, that Mabel has signing skills.
The system, called video relay services, or VRS, is proving a godsend to the deaf and hearing-impaired, allowing them to communicate using American Sign Language through a translator to a third party.
Increasing numbers of the hearing-impaired are now using various sorts of video phones with VRS to place calls to each other and to the hearing world.
VRS providers are paid approximately $6 a minute by the FCC from a tax levied on every U.S. phone bill. That makes VRS an expensive replacement for conventional TDD-based services, in which an operator relays between a deaf person typing on a computer terminal and a hearing person on the phone. Those calls cost the FCC about $1 a minute.
But the technology is a quantum leap for deaf people, according to Pat Nola, CEO of Sorenson Communications, the nation's largest VRS provider.
For the deaf, switching to the new service is like a hearing person going from Morse code to a telephone, says Nola.
"What is subtle is that American Sign Language is spoken with hands, and it is so different than English," Nola said. "With VRS, the hearing and deaf can be connected in the natural language of both parties, and it is a very effective way to communicate emotions since the interpreter emotes…. To communicate the emotions you hear in a person's voice, the interpreter signs in a certain way to a deaf person."
Grant Laird Jr., who runs the community site Deaf Network, concurs.
"You are able to express your emotion thru VRS with your natural sign language — unlike TTY (teletype terminals) with limited text messages (where) no emotion shows," said Laird, a 36-year-old semiconductor specialist at Texas Instruments who is deaf. "We are getting close to 100 percent independent."
Laird uses a video phone to call his parents, who are also deaf, though he says they are only slowly adapting to the new technology.
Members of Laird's immediate family all carry mobile devices, such as the Sidekick, to keep in touch using instant messaging. His wife is also deaf, and they have two teenage daughters who are not hearing-impaired.
He also uses a competing VRS service from LifeLinks, which provides the deaf with a broadband connection, a webcam and video-phone software from SightSpeed. LifeLinks provides VRS translators, but the deaf can also use the software for free calls to other deaf people.
SightSpeed's service, which is free for anyone to use, includes a video-mail inbox and technology that refreshes only the most important aspects of a video frame in order to optimize the frame rate, according to SightSpeed President Scott Lomond.
Laird says he likes SightSpeed for work and travel, but says it has its limitations. For instance, when using SightSpeed in a room without good lighting, Laird is forced to slow down his signing so he can be understood by the interpreter.
By comparison, Sorenson provides the deaf with a company-designed video camera called the VP-100, which sits on top of a television and shows the interpreter or deaf friend full-screen. The company allows deaf people to place calls to and from each other for free — a popular feature that enjoys almost eight times the use of Sorenson's VRS service, according to CEO Nola.