Videophones at airport ease travel for hearing impaired

Sign of the times

By Paul Beebe, The Salt Lake Tribune

Finally, after a lifetime of deafness and using text telephones to send messages, Arthur Valdez had a telephone conversation Wednesday replete with the rich nuances of expression that most people take for granted.

Valdez was using his fingers to speak to a woman via a videophone booth that allows phone calls to be made to hearing people through sign language interpreters.

The encounter, which took place at Salt Lake City International Airport on Wednesday, was an unscripted exhibition of a powerful tool developed by Sorensen Communications, the Salt Lake City-based provider of communications services to the deaf and hard of hearing.

As Valdez signed, a camera mounted above a television screen converted his image into digital signals that were zipped through a high-speed Internet connection to a call center, where the woman could see him on another TV.

And when she responded, the woman used sign language - and body language - to chat with Valdez, who watched her on his screen with undisguised delight.

"It's wonderful to have the videophone here and have the service here," a smiling Valdez said later. "They can interpret my expressions, my mannerisms, my feelings like none other. And if I'm talking to somebody, and they are impatient, I can get a sense of that."

Sorenson's videophones and voice relay service have been available in homes and schools for the deaf since 2003. The demonstration on Wednesday marked the first appearance of videophone booths for the deaf at a U.S. airport, according to Sorenson chief executive Patrick Nola.

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

The booths are in the baggage areas of Terminals One and Two. They will enable deaf travelers to call hearing people and speak to them through an interpreter at one of Sorenson's calls centers across the country.

If the conversation between Valdez and the interpreter had been a real phone call, the woman's role would have been different.

Valdez would have entered a booth equipped with a Sorenson videophone and dialed the number of the person he wanted to call. Through the company's video relay service, the interpreter would have appeared on the screen. She would have connected Valdez with the party, translated his hand signals and relayed his message by voice via a standard phone. In turn, she would have translated the party's response into sign language and conveyed it to Valdez via the TV-Internet hookup.

"Telephones are an important tool for all travelers needing to solve unexpected problems that may arise and for reassuring family and friends by remaining in communication while on the road," Nola said.

The service is free. It's funded by a surcharge that appears on monthly phone bills. In Utah, the surcharge is about 10 cents a month, Nola said. From The Salt Lake Tribune. Reprinted with permission. Back to Article List