Firm helps deaf at Library of Congress

'I can have an interview and we can see each other,' worker says

By Mike Gorrell, The Salt Lake Tribune, February 27, 2008

Deaf employees of the Library of Congress can do their jobs more effectively these days, thanks to a video telephone system provided by Utah's Sorenson Communications.

The Taylorsville-based company recently "licensed" - a technical term for donated free of charge - 16 Video Relay Service (VRS) videophones to the Washington, D.C., library, the first federal agency to use the system.

"It will help me communicate with anyone I need to talk to about anything," said Fred Pickering, 60, who works in information technology, one of roughly 20 deaf library employees.

Pickering's co-workers frequently seek his input. He handles the library's computer software and hardware, helping colleagues use various databases.

Throughout his 32 years at the library, Pickering has used a TTY system in which he contacted an intermediary operator, who would type out messages and send them back and forth between the parties.

"It was very slow and tedious, and there were a lot of misunderstandings," he said. "In deaf culture we rely on sign language, and that's a different language than written English."

With Sorenson's system, Pickering now calls an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter and, using the videophone unit attached to his computer screen, can visually deliver his message through hand gestures. The interpreter contacts the hearing user via a standard telephone line and relays the conversation in both ASL and English.

Incoming calls work the same, but in reverse order.

"Technology has changed so much, from nothing at all to TTY in the '70s and now to this today," he said. "It's so immediate. I can have an interview and we can see each other. It's great. It's far, far better."

Ann Bardsley, a Sorenson Communications spokeswoman, said deaf employees at the library became aware of the video relay service and contacted the company about making it available.

In return for free equipment, training and support, Sorenson receives compensation from a federal fund created as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

But Bardsley noted that the company, because of its longstanding ties to and support of the deaf community, was eager to advance efforts to improve communications capabilities.

"There is an ongoing and pervasive need to overcome communication barriers," she said. "We hope other federal agencies will look to the example of the Library of Congress to see how their agencies might implement the system in their places of employment."

From The Salt Lake Tribune. Reprinted with permission. Back to Article List