Voice mail for the deaf sounds like a contradiction, but Leonard A. Blackshear knows better.
The president of an Annapolis voice-processing company makes it his business to see that deaf or hearing-impaired clients get the same chances in the workplace as their hearing counterparts.
His company, TeleSonic, outfits businesses with a computer-based technology that digitalizes voice sounds so they can be recorded, sent, stored or retrieved. Its applications range from voice mail and telephone audio libraries to automated telephone answering and dialing and access to databases, such as bank account balances, by phone.
Through such systems, companies can exchange messages and information, conduct meetings, train workers and get consultants at the touch ofa few buttons.
Ten years ago, few in the business world had even heard of voice mail. But, over the past decade, the industry has boomed as more and more companies found it an efficient and affordable way to communicate.
Blackshear predicts one of the more rapidly growing segments of the market will be employers adapting their systems for deaf or hearing-impaired workers.
Soon, a federal law will force companies to do so.
The landmark Americans with Disabilities Acttakes effect next year.
The civil rights act mandates that government, business and public establishments and institutions offer telecommunications access to people with hearing and speech disabilities. There are 4,000 deaf people in the county, the Census Bureau estimates.
Under the law, an employer must do everything to reasonably accommodate a disabled employee, which could mean installing Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf (TDD), machines that the deaf use to talk on the phone.
Because of the law, "you will see an increasing number of disabled people in the workplace," Blackshear says. "And moreand more, it will be required that the guy on the other end has a TDD."
To use voice mail, someone who is deaf would communicate through a TDD.
The person would attach a phone receiver to the machine and dial a voice mail number. Prompts to punch in codes would flash across a TDD screen in writing.
In a case where only one party has a TDD, an operator at TeleSonic's service bureau would translate the message either from voice to TDD or TDD to voice and relay it to the second party.
The company also sells special pagers that vibrate to alert someone to messages.
"We see ourselves as just scratching the surface," Blackshear says. "The best work in this area is yet to be done."
To Blackshear, his job entails more than setting up equipment in offices.
"We're opening up people's lives. You increase understanding for people and you increase opportunity," he says.