Call me! Videophones make it easy for signing kids to make calls

supporting families with kids who have hearing loss

June 2007 by Candace Lindow-Davies, Minnesota Hands & Voices FOCUS

Helen Keller once said that blindness cut her off from things, but deafness cut her off from people. She pointed out that the biggest challenge for people who have hearing loss is communicating with other people. Fortunately for our kids, technology is helping bridge this communication gap. One of the coolest technological advancements for our kids is the development of videophones and video relay service (VRS).

Deaf adults often tell stories from their past about relying on friends and family to make telephone calls for them. When teletypewriters (TTYs) were invented in the '60s, people with hearing loss had the freedom to place calls directly to another person who also had a TTY. Conversations were typed back and forth. Many people with hearing loss still make calls on TTYs or use a relay service to make calls to people who don't have a TTY. But, for very young children without reading and writing skills, TTYs offer no help. Even older children often do not have the typing skills to make calls run smoothly. Now, thanks to the development of videophones, kids who sign can converse with friends and family pretty much on their own.

Tanya Miller from CSDVRS explained how the videophones and VRS work:

"When two video users actually view each other through a videophone or web-cam and can speak directly with each other without using a Video Interpreter, this type of call is called a 'Point to Point' call," Tanya said. "When a video user (such as a deaf or hard of hearing person) connects to VRS, a Video Interpreter (VI) will dial out to a hearing person's telephone. The VI will relay the conversation between the two parties. As the deaf person signs, the VI will voice to the hearing user. When the hearing person speaks, the deaf person can view the VI sign what is being said by the hearing person."

This works the other way, too, of course. A hearing person can initiate the call to a person with hearing loss. If that person is not home, the VI can leave a Video Mail message that is recorded and emailed to the person with hearing loss, or the VI can send a text message.

CSDVRS offers Voice Carry Over services for children and adults who prefer to speak directly to the hearing caller. The VI may use sign language and lip movements so the video user can benefit from lip-reading the interpreter. This is especially helpful for children who use oral communication or who have cochlear implants but still need some support to access telephone calls. One nice touch is that the interpreters will adapt to the signing style of the child, added Diana Lewis of Sorenson Communications. Diana also offered more insight on how VRS works.

"There is no charge for the phone, as long as this is the only videophone in the home," she explained. "The Relay service is also free, as well as installation, training and support. All that is needed is a high-speed Internet connection. You can either use a TV and a videophone or a computer and a web cam. There are no minimum age requirements, and the phone has to be installed in the home of the child's legal guardian." So, what are the benefits of having a videophone available for your child?

"This was a very good experience," said Rachelle Erickson who had a Sorenson videophone installed for her daughter, Shay. "The whole process took 2 weeks from ordering it online to having it set up. There's no charge, which means I have more money for other expenses. But the best part is that my daughter can talk to her friends easily. She giggles and gets to see her friend giggling on the other end. Hearing people hear emotion in the other person's tone of voice. My daughter can see their emotions."

"I really love it," Shay added. "I really enjoy seeing my friends' faces so I know how they feel when I talk to them." Shay has used it constantly, and the phone rings off the hook at their house. "It's an awesome way to communicate," Rachelle said. "Kids with hearing loss deserve just as much of a chance to communicate as hearing kids. I just feel bad that more parents haven't heard of it."

Sorenson installer and trainer, Wayne Faggot, could not agree more.

"When I was growing up, if I wanted to talk to a friend, I had to get on my bike and pedal across town," Wayne said. "Today, kids have it easy because they can just use this technology. It's much easier now."

To get an idea of the way VRS works, you can go to Sorenson's website ( where you'll find a video showing a deaf child chatting with her hearing grandparents using VRS. Diana said that many of the kids who use VRS are children at residential schools for the deaf who use the service to stay in better contact with their hearing family members during the school week. These kids also use VRS or their own videophones when they're home on weekends and summer breaks to keep in touch with classmates who are scattered over a large geographic area. Diana also sees the potential use of VRS in the classroom where students could order their own pizza for school parties or schedule their own interviews with prospective colleges.

Diana pointed out how with VRS a signing student can have an advantage over a hearing peer in some cases. By using a trilingual VRS video interpreter, a signing student could contact a caller who speaks only Spanish and have the VI translate the student's American Sign Language into spoken Spanish. As for advancements on the horizon for this technology, both CSDVRS and Sorenson hinted they'll be making VRS available for wireless phones. Group conversations or teleconferencing capabilities also are close to being released. Technological advancements like these continue to give our children better access to our community and greater opportunity for independence.

From Minnesota Hands & Voices. Reprinted with permission. Back to Article List