Toby Silver called her doctor yesterday and got the results of some blood tests over the phone. You think that's not a big deal? Just ask Ms. Silver -- or anyone else who is deaf.
Ms. Silver, who lives in Montgomery County and works for the Maryland Association of the Deaf, was able to call her doctor because of a new state service giving some 350,000 Marylanders with hearing or speech problems full access to the telephone for the first time.
Through the Maryland Relay Service, they can use teleprinters attached to their phones to reach an operator who will call anyone in the country -- and much of the world -- and relay the messages that they type.
In turn, hearing people on the other end of the line can tell the operator their reply. The operator will continue to "translate" in this fashion until the conversation is finished.
The service officially doesn't begin until midnight tonight, but it was available yesterday during a trial run. In a telephone interview conducted through the service last night, Ms. Silver's sense of liberation was evident in the words she spoke through an operator.
"I called a plumber this morning because my toilet got stopped up. That sounds pretty simple. But in the past, I would have had to go and get the neighbors, wake them up and ask them to make the call for me. . . .
" I called hearing members of my family and we exchanged Thanks
giving greetings. We were able to communicate -- to do what others take for granted. It's a tremendous feeling of autonomy," Ms. Silver said.
The federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 required all states to develop such a system by 1993. The General Assembly ordered that Maryland's system be up by July 1, 1992, but state officials decided not to wait.
The Board of Public Works in September awarded US Sprint a three-year contract to operate the system, which is being paid for by a fee charged to all state telephone customers. The fee, which took effect last July, is now 45 cents but will be cut to 31 cents in January.
"This will have the greatest effect for the hearing impaired, but it also is something that all Marylanders will benefit from," said Joseph L. Harrison Jr., a spokesman for the state Department of General Services.
He noted that hearing people will be able to use the system to get in touch with deaf friends or relatives. "And I suspect many businesses will be getting new business over the phone from deaf people who could never shop that way before," he said.
Sprint is scheduled to complete work in April on a relay center in Baltimore to house Maryland's operators and equipment. Until then, calls are being routed through Sprint's relay center in Austin, Texas.
The service can be reached starting tomorrow by dialing a toll-free number, 1-800-735-2258. Users will not be billed for local calls. Sprint will charge a discounted rate for long distance calls to compensate for the additional time needed to conduct a conversation through a relay operator.