Telecommunications for the Deaf
Since the invention
of the telephone more than 100 years ago scientists and engineers alike
have been looking for ways for the deaf to communicate. Before the advent
of the modern computer and the digital age, the only way the deaf had to
communicate personally over a distance was by using a Teletype machine
(TTY). There were many problems that plagued the first Teletype machines
and they were also very expensive. Many years after the invention of the
TTY, another system came into existence: the relay services which allowed
the deaf community to communicate with the hearing community. The 21st
century has brought the deaf community many other methods of
communication, from e-mail to cell phones that send and receive text.
The first TTY's for telephone communications
were put to practical use for the deaf in 1964 when, "Robert H. Wietbrecht
developed the acoustic coupler" for transmitting and receiving information
from the TTY over normal telephone lines (Jensema, 1994). It would take
another four years before TTY communications were used in the deaf
community, but at that time only 25 were in use. Another problem that
plagued early TTY's was that they were a heavy mechanical device which was
not portable. As time went on the TTY's became electronic devices and
became known as Telecommunication Device for the Deaf (TDD). While the
TDD's were still very expensive, the price has continued to decrease as
the price for electronics has continued to decrease.
The TDD has a small keyboard that the person
types on. Above the keyboard is a small LCD screen that shows what the
individual is typing. On the other end of the phone line the other TDD is
displaying on the small LCD screen what that person is typing. Nowadays,
the TDD's range from laptop computer size to sizes smaller than a laptop
computer and can be taken with the individual when they leave their home
or business. Prices range from $200 to $600. With some models the
individual places the phone receiver directly on the TDD; with others the
individual plugs the unit directly into the telephone jack, or the date
jack on the cell phone if it is a portable TDD.
The TDD/TTY was a great way for the deaf to
communicate with the deaf, but it didn't allow the deaf to communicate
with the hearing unless the hearing had a TDD/TTY device. This is why
relay services were created. It allowed the deaf to communicate with the
hearing and vice versa. The relay service acts as a middleman between the
deaf and the hearing. The deaf subscriber types on their TDD/TTY device
which transmits to a relay service that also has a TDD/TYY device. The
relay service operator then verbally relays the message to the hearing
individual over the phone line. The opposite is true if the hearing
individual wants to communicate with a deaf individual: the relay service
types in the verbal message from the hearing person and transmits it to
the deaf individual.
The relay service was developed in the early
1970's, but at that time "Individuals could call in and leave a voice
message that the answering service relayed by TDD to a deaf subscriber and
vice versa" (Jensema, 1994). It wasn't until 1993 when the Americans with
Disabilities Act went into effect that the relay service became readily
available to the deaf community and the general public alike. There is
one downfall with the relay service: the individuals who are communicating
cannot have a private phone conversation because of the relay service
operator who is relaying the messages back and forth.
Other current methods that allow the deaf to
communicate with deaf or hearing individuals is e-mail, text messaging
cell phones, video telephones, instant messaging and fax machines. In
1989, a couple in Britain was working on a system that would transmit sign
language from an individual signing in front of a small camera to a
telephone line and display what that person was signing on a small
television screen. Nowadays that can be done by using a small camera
connected to a personal computer that transmits those images over the
internet to someone whom that individual wants to communicate with.
With all of the new technology
available today, the gap that separates the deaf community from the
hearing community has just about disappeared. To find out how the deaf
community was using the available communication methods, a survey was
conducted in 2002. The survey reported, "A lot of people said they used
e-mail for the kinds of conversations they once conducted via TTY or
relay" (Bowe, 2002).
Jensema, Carl J. (1994). Telecommunications
for the deaf. American Annals for the Deaf. 139, 22-27.
Bowe, Frank G. (2002). Deaf and hard of
hearing Americans' instant messaging and e-mail use: national survey.
American Annals for the Deaf. 147, 6-10
No Author Given. (August 19, 1989).
Telephones come to terms with sign language. New Scientist. 123,