Those who can't hear phone can still 'talk,' watching TV

Their use by the deaf community is growing; it's faster than teletype.

By DAVID BAUERLEIN, The Florida Times-Union

At Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, attorney Sharon Caserta can meet in her office with deaf clients and communicate in free-flowing sign language.

Or she can call them by using videophones and converse by sign language at the same rapid speed. The videophones are hooked up to television screens and high-speed Internet connections, enabling Caserta and her client to see each other in clear detail as they sign back and forth.

Videophones might seem like devices straight out of the Jetsons or National Security Council sessions, but for the deaf and hard of hearing, the technology has arrived.

In the past three years, Sorenson Communications of Utah has helped spur the nationwide growth by offering free videophones to the deaf.

Videophone availability

Videophones are gaining more use by the deaf and are beginning to show up in public buildings. Here is what's available in Northeast Florida.

Libraries: The downtown Jacksonville library has two videophones. There's no charge for their use. The library system wants to expand the service by placing videophones in 10 regional branches. St. Johns County's library system also has been looking at adding videophones to its branches.

Colleges: St. Johns River Community College recently added videophones in libraries at its three campuses. The videophones are part of the college's Office of Interpreter Services for deaf students.

Government buildings: Jacksonville City Hall is studying the feasibility of videophones in city buildings.

Airport: The Jacksonville Aviation Authority will look at using videophones at Jacksonville International Airport.

Orange Park resident Christine Stevens recently jumped on the bandwagon. She said she's so pleased she hardly ever uses her old technology, which consisted of a teletype machine hooked up to a telephone.

"Soon, it will be covered in dust," said Stevens, who is president of the River City Association of the Deaf.

Stevens and other people with hearing disabilities aren't charged for calls made using their videophones. The Federal Communications Commission requires telephone companies, via their customers, to pay into a national fund that covers the expense for handling the calls.

The fund makes payments to companies, such as Sorenson Communications, that run the relay service. The deaf person contacts a call center where an interpreter answers. The deaf person and the interpreter can see each other on video screens, enabling them to use sign language. The interpreter uses a regular phone line to call the hearing person. The interpreter then relays the conversation between the deaf and hearing person.

Though deaf people can make calls free on the video relay system, they must acquire the necessary equipment and pay for the broadband connection that transmits video.

Sorenson's videophone giveaways originally came with a catch. Recipients could use only Sorenson's interpreters, not rival video relay companies. But this year, Sorenson changed gears and let callers go to any company's interpreters while using the Sorenson videophone.

Sorenson also has expanded its donation of phones to public facilities. For instance, the company gave two videophones for public use at the downtown Jacksonville library. The library system wants to expand the videophones to all 10 regional branch libraries so deaf people without high-speed Internet access at home can take advantage of the technology, said library spokeswoman Stacy Bucher.

Sorenson decides on a contract-by-contract basis whether it will also supply the television needed for the videophone hookup, according to the company. The organization receiving the videophone pays for the Internet connection.

Without videophones, deaf people can still communicate via telephone, but they use a teletype machine that sends and receives text messages. But typing messages is much slower than communicating by sign language, said Jacksonville resident Randy Dickens, who has been using a videophone for a year. He said a phone call that lasts 15 minutes using a teletype machine will take five minutes by videophone.

Dickens turned to Jacksonville Area Legal Aid after he faced legal claims in an automobile accident. The nonprofit organization recently started a Deaf and Hard of Hearing Legal Advocacy Program because many deaf people feel the legal system is too difficult for them to navigate. Caserta, who is fluent in American Sign Language, and Dickens said the videophones made it much easier for them to talk over the telephone. They didn't have to stop and start while exchanging text messages, and they understood each other more clearly because facial expressions and body posture play important roles in sign language.

From The Florida Times-Union. Reprinted with permission. Back to Article List