New hook-up enhances phone calling for the deaf

By Thomas Burr, The Salt Lake Tribune

WASHINGTON - Phoning a friend or relative isn't an easy task if you're deaf.

In the past, someone who couldn't hear wanted to make a phone call, that person had to type out a message on a keyboard and the recipient had to have a similar device on the other end or the pair would have to rely on an interpreter.

Now, a Utah company is promoting a new technology - free to hearing-impaired individuals - that allows the user to communicate using sign language via a phone call with an interpreter who then can relay the words to the recipient. Salt Lake City-based Sorenson Communications touted their new service in Washington on Wednesday in the famous Caucus Room on Capitol Hill.

The video relay service is "really revolutionizing and changing the way deaf people are communicating," said Bobbie Beth Scoggins, president of the National Association for the Deaf. "They can communicate in their native language rather than in a text-based English language."

Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, helped demonstrate the system, which uses a set-top box and a television to send video of the hearing-impaired caller to an interpreter who then relays the message to the recipient.

Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, called Bennett from 10 feet away on the stage and used an interpreter to banter with the senator. The service allowed the two to joke back and forth, something the promoters of the device say isn't as easy when typed messages are used.

Bennett, who has had hearing-impaired family members, said he understands the difficulties deaf people face.

Matlin, who played a deaf White House adviser on the West Wing series, testified before Congress 16 years ago for legislation requiring all televisions be equipped to handle closed captioning.

She said through an interpreter that the video relay service was "equally important."

"VRS is life-changing," she said. "Every deaf or hard of hearing individual should have access to this."

Ron Burdett, a vice president of Sorenson Communications, said the company's device makes communicating easier and faster for the hearing impaired. "Most conversations last two or three minutes" on the video relay service, Burdett, who is deaf, said through an interpreter.

"The same conversation used to last 30 minutes."

The average person can speak some 400 words a minute while the average person can only type maybe 40 words a minute, the company says.

The device and calls made through it are free to hearing impaired people because the federal government pays for the service through a tax on all telephone service.

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