Filling a communications gap TDD keyboards to give deaf full phone-line access.

August 13, 1991|By Edward L. Heard Jr. | Edward L. Heard Jr.,Evening Sun Staff

"One of the reasons Bell invented the phone was to help his deaf wife," said Willis Mann. "But over the years, that's been the biggest obstacle to the deaf."

For Mann, 51, and other deaf persons like him, the telephone, despite its convenience, has widened the communication gap between the deaf and the hearing.

Without face-to-face contact and the possibility of lip reading or signing, deaf persons have been shut off from normal phone conversations.

Mann hopes to help change that.

He is director of Telecommunications Access of Maryland, or TAM, a new 24-hour-a-day service that will be available Dec. 1. For the first time, the phone system will give 350,000 deaf Marylanders with special keyboards the ability to communicate with anyone who has a phone.

TAM, a dual-party relay service, will allow a deaf caller using an electronic keyboard to converse with a hearing person who is using a regular phone. Until now, deaf persons with the special Telephone Devices for the Deaf, or TDD, keyboards could converse only with similarly equipped phones.

While the service is generally applauded by the deaf community, the 45-cent surcharge on all users' phone bills that will pay for the service has drawn more than a few complaints.

Under the new system, which is mandated by federal law, a trained operator with access to both devices acts as intermediary between the hearing and the deaf.

By voice, the operator will relay typed information from the deaf person to the hearing party. Likewise, the operator will type the hearing person's end of the conversation for the deaf party. All calls will be confidential.

The statewide system, with a $13.5 million budget in its first year, will be operated by a private firm but managed by the the state's Department of General Services.

The 45-cent monthly phone surcharge began showing up on phone bills in July, labeled as a "Universal Service Fee."

Later this month, General Services will open bids and award a contract for providing the service. Officials say the system will create more than 200 jobs.

Deaf users will still have to provide their own TTD equipment, at a cost of $200 to $600. For those who are deaf and blind, Braille TTDs can cost as much as $5,000, Mann said.

People who are not deaf, but are speech and hearing impaired, can also use the new service.

While TAM will bridge the gap between the deaf and the hearing, Mann said, the most important provision it makes for the deaf is independence.

"I won't have to run next door to ask my neighbor to make a phone call for me," he said.

Mann, who lost his hearing at age 10 after suffering spinal meningitis, said deaf persons who can't use phones often have to drive miles or make other inconvenient trips just to find out simple information.

Paul Singleton, 33, a deaf program analyst at the Defense Medical Systems Support Center in Virginia, said he felt helpless when he couldn't call the hospital the day his 9-month-old son suffered breathing problems in his sleep.

Speaking through a sign-language interpreter, Singleton said he had to wait until he arrived at work the next morning to get assistance phoning the hospital.

TAM is being established to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. The law requires all states to provide a dual party relay system for the hearing and speech impaired by )) 1993.

California has had TAM service since 1987, and 39 other states have set programs since the federal bill passed. The General Assembly authorized Maryland's TAM program this year.

"We've begun taking the physical barriers away for the handicapped years ago," said Joe Harrison, a spokesman for the general services department.

"Now we're taking down the communication barriers for the deaf. I think that's just as important in our society as anything else."

The General Assembly decided to finance the service with a 45-cent charge on each residential or business phone line, much like the charge for the 911 emergency service number. The Maryland Public Service Commission instructed Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. to begin collecting the surcharge in July and to turn the money over to the comptroller.

But many Marylanders have called the PSC to complain about the surcharge, which is at least 20 cents higher than in other states.

PSC spokesman Frank Fulton said General Services calculated the 45-cent charge based on the expense of hiring 200 operators and handling at least 200,000 calls a month.

Fulton noted that Maryland has the highest proportion of deaf and hearing impaired persons in the nation, in part because of its proximity to Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the nation's only liberal arts college for the deaf.

He said some states may have lower fees because they have restrictions and limitations on calling. Maryland will have no limitations. He said the state will have to raise $1.2 million by the end of September to cover start-up costs.

Fulton predicted that Maryland's will be the second busiest system in the nation, behind California's, which handles more than 300,000 calls from the deaf each month. About 2 million of California's 28 million citizens are deaf.

Callers who use the new system will be charged only the regular phone company fees for local and long-distance calls. There is no limit to the number of calls or their duration.

The new service will be a communications triangle.

If a deaf person initiates the call by dialing a special toll-free number with a TDD keyboard, the message will be displayed on the computer screen of an operator working from a relay center, who will then dial the other party.

Operators have been trained to translate the shorthand frequently used by TDD typists into conversational English.

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