Airport videophones a first in U.S.

Sorenson company providing service for Winter Deaflympics

By Angie Welling, Deseret Morning News

When hundreds of deaf and hard-of-hearing athletes land at the Salt Lake City International Airport early next year for the Winter Deaflympics, they'll find they can do something never before done at an airport - place a videophone call to let loved ones know they've landed safely.

"Lots of deaf from around the world will see this and they'll be so thrilled," said Ron Burdett, vice president of community relations for Sorenson Communications, which on Wednesday unveiled two new airport videophones, one in each terminal near the baggage claim areas.

"This is a historic first for the country," said Patrick Nola, president and CEO of Sorenson Communications. "The deaf can communicate to the hearing in their natural language.

"We hope this sets an example for airports across the country," Nola said.

The Sorenson Video Relay Service allows deaf users to place telephone calls through an American Sign Language interpreter, who relays the message to the person on the other end of the line and then signs the hearing person's response to the user.

Sorenson has 55 call centers across the country, including one in South Jordan, where thousands of ASL interpreters are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The technology also allows point-to-point communication between two deaf or hard-of-hearing users, allowing them to see one another's facial expressions and gestures, a must for comprehensive communication.

"We can show our emotions; we can show if we're happy or sad," said Burdett, who is deaf and spoke Wednesday through an ASL interpreter.

Spoken or written English is not the native language for deaf individuals, so the ability to communicate through sign language is important, he said.

The technology replaces older communication methods such as traditional "TTY" service, which requires a text typewriter to be connected to a phone line and calls for cumbersome key-stroke commands to complete sentences.

Communication through typing or, worse, writing notes, is time-consuming and frustrating for deaf individuals, Burdett said.

"It really was a barrier to us being able to communicate," he said.

About a dozen members of Utah's deaf community showed up for Wednesday's demonstration, and many stuck around to test out the new equipment.

"Today is really an exciting day for all of the deaf community here," said Marilyn Call, director of the Utah Division of Services for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing and director of the Sanderson Community Center for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing.

There are an estimated 100,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing people living in Utah, and 28 million nationwide.

Sorenson provides its video relay service at no cost to deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, and will send employees to people's home to install the equipment and train users on the technology. Users must provide a standard television and high-speed Internet access.

The Salt Lake-based company also offers a free messaging service called IP Relay, which allows people to place text calls through a mobile device like a BlackBerry, and then have those messages read aloud by a communications assistant to a hearing person.

From The Deseret Morning News. Reprinted with permission. Back to Article List