Telephoning for a pizza, or help for a daughter Deaf will have full access to phone system.

November 29, 1991|By Michelle Singletary | Michelle Singletary,Evening Sun Staff

The first thing Paul Singleton said he plans to do when a new state telephone system begins operating Sunday is call a pizza or Chinese takeout restaurant.

Deborah Watson will be happy that she can make a phone call to her doctor if her daughter runs a high fever again.

And, Willis Mann is looking forward to talking with his 19-year-old son now stationed with the Army in Fort Irwin, Calif.

Singleton, Watson and Mann are deaf.

Beginning Dec. 1, the state will start a service that will give hearing and hearing-impaired residents full telephone access for the first time.

Called the Maryland Relay Service, it will be a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week system that is capable of linking Marylanders who can hear with an estimated 350,000 residents who are deaf, hard-of-hearing or speech-impaired.

The start-up of the relay service is seven months ahead of schedule. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires all states to implement such a relay system by 1993. Maryland's General Assembly required the implementation of a relay system by July 1, 1992.

Maryland lawmakers passed legislation this year and gave the state Public Service Commission authority to charge individual phone users up to 45 cents a month to pay for the relay service.

Sensitive to the complaints, Martin W. Walsh, the state's secretary of general services, said the monthly surcharge of 45 cents should drop to 31 cents by next January after start-up costs are paid. The surcharge generates about $1.1 million each month for the relay service fund.

In September, the Board of Public Works awarded Sprint a three-year contract to operate the system. The contract calls for the state to pay Sprint Systems at least $32.5 million depending on the per-minute usage of the system.

The service works by using specially trained operators who connect the parties and relay the conversation between the hearing and hearing-impaired callers. When the hearing person speaks using a standard telephone, the operator types the message to the hearing-impaired person on a keyboard known as a Telecommunications Device for the Deaf, or TDD.

After the hearing-impaired person types a response, the operator will relay by voice the message to the hearing caller. All calls will be confidential.

There is no limit to the length or number of calls that can be made on the system. All calls will be transported over the Sprint DTC fiber-optic network.

Users of the service will not be billed for calls placed in their local service area. Long distance calls will be billed at a special discounted rate. For example, long distance calls made during the day will be billed at 35 percent off Sprint's regular rate.

Before this state-wide relay service, the deaf or hearing-impaired in Maryland relied on a few volunteer groups that assisted in making calls to the general public. Otherwise, those equipped with a TDD could make calls only to people who also had the special equipment, according to Joseph Harrison, a spokesman with the Maryland Department of General Services, which will administer the system.

While the volunteer groups are helpful, Harrison said, they often had limited hours in which calls could be made. He said the state expects about 100,000 people to initially use the new relay system. The start-up of the system may also encourage more deaf or hearing-impaired people to purchase a TDD, which can cost between $200 and $600, he said.

While having the luxury of calling for takeout pizza is something Singleton said he is looking forward to, he will be most comforted to know that he can reach people in an emergency.

Singleton said he could have used the relay system recently when his year-old son was on a heart monitor because of respiratory problems. He said the monitor would go off often but he never was sure when it was a false alarm.

"I couldn't call a doctor. I wish we had a relay system then," Singleton said by communicating through a TDD.

Maryland users will be able to call all 50 states and place international calls to English- and Spanish-speaking persons.

Sprint was recently awarded relay contracts in California and Nevada, in addition to Maryland. Sprint also operates relay services in Texas, Colorado, Missouri, North Carolina and New Hampshire.

In April 1992, Sprint will complete work on a relay center in Baltimore to house operators and equipment. The construction of the center will initially create between 50 and 100 jobs depending on the number of Marylanders that use the system, said Angela Sullivan Peacock, a spokeswoman for Sprint.

Peacock said since site plans are not finalized she could not give the location of the new center. Until the local center is completed relay calls will be routed through Sprint's center in Austin, Texas, at no additional cost to the state.

All callers may gain access to the system after Dec. 1 by dialing the following toll-free number: 1-800-735-2258.

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