Upgrading the way we communicate

Nate Hipple

Disability Support Programs and Services is hooking-up students who are deaf or hearing impaired with a new Video Relay Service (VRS). The technology enables a deaf person to communicate with a hearing person over the telephone, with the assistance of a video interpreter–who relays the conversation between sign language and the spoken word.

Before the VRS technology, a deaf person had to be in the same room as an interpreter in order to see phone calls translated into sign language. Now the interpreter can be reached wherever there is access to a videophone.

“Public places need to have one,” said to Dr. Debra Wright-Howard, program manger of Disabled Support Programs and Services (DSP&S). “The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires it. This relay phone must be available.”

The ADA was signed into law in 1990 by President George H. W. Bush to prohibit discrimination based on disability. The videophone is intended to provide equal access to telephones for students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. “That’s why we’re funded,” explained Wright-Howard, “so everybody has access.”

Here’s how VRS works: First, the deaf caller signs a message to the video interpreter (they see each other on TV screens). Video Intepreters relay the signed-message to the recipient of the call, who listens and responds orally–and the interpreter translates the message to the deaf caller in sign language, visible on-screen.

“A number of students have been using it regularly,” reports Wright-Howard. “The technology has improved and there’s no delay anymore. ” She stressed the importance of video clarity and speed in viewing the subtleties of sign language. Wright-Howard is considering ordering a second device.

Sue Taetzsch, the deaf and hard-of-hearing counselor estimated, “There are about 15 to 20 students at City who are deaf or hearing impaired. It varies each semester.” She noticed that students were utilizing the new VRS on a regular basis. The frequency and content of these calls were unmonitored for privacy reasons. Taetzsch would like to see a second VRS device added to the library. She pointed to the fact that the DSP&S office closes at 5 p.m. A library videophone would create 18 extra hours of availability per week.

VRS technology stands to replace the older TTY, or “teletypewriter”, which debuted back in 1973. “This is what used to be the mainstay,” said Dr. Wright-Howard, patting the old machine, which is still operational. The TTY is just a basic keyboard with an electronic readout that allows users to “text” back-and-forth over a telephone line. The conversation ticks along very much like a text message exchange. TTY even uses the same abbreviations such as BRB for “be right back” and THX for “thanks”.

Dr. Wright-Howard explained that modern text messaging is actually an offspring of the decades-old teletype machines. “These are technologies that have been around for years,” she said. Wright-Howard remembered how voice-activated software, designed for the blind, now enjoys widespread use. “The general population wants technologies originally designed for people with disabilities.”

Darwin Browne knows these trends well. He’s been working at DSP&S for almost ten years. “Some people don’t want to change,” he said about the TTY usage. “They prefer the old school way.” Browne notes how a younger generation of deaf students at City College are using Sidekicks and other mobile devices, rather than the TTY.

Sue Taetzsch isn’t exactly sure when she last saw her own TTY. “I think it’s in the garage someplace,” she said. Taetzsch, who is deaf, is a huge fan of e-mail, but her webcam does support VRS. However Taetzsch does not plan to unplug City College’s TTY anytime soon, “because there continues to be a demand. Older people may prefer it.”

For students who are deaf or hearing-impaired, City College offers the old TTY and the new VRS, both of which are currently available for public use in the lobby of the Disability Support Programs and Services, room A-155. The VRS has been placed in the corner of the room to give the user maximum privacy. Both services are free.