Cost of Md. phone-relay service to rise 4 System provides communication link for hearing-impaired

September 25, 1993|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

Marylanders will pay four pennies more on their monthly phone bills starting Oct. 1 for a state service that has become the most popular of its kind linking those who hear with those who can't.

All Maryland phone users, with or without hearing impairments, now pay 17 cents a month per line to support the Maryland Relay Service, which state figures show is now being used nearly 150,000 times a month.

The new rate, approved earlier this month by the Public Service Commission, will be 21 cents and will underwrite the service's unexpectedly heavy usage.

Maryland government established the service in 1991 to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, using the Sprint phone business as a vendor to provide the linkage between the hearing-impaired and others.

From ordering pizza to making doctors' appointments, the service allows the deaf, the hard-of-hearing and speech-disabled do things people without such disabilities take for granted.

Using a keyboard with a display screen, deaf people type out messages and transmit them through an 800 number.

An operator reads the message on a computer terminal and then translates it to a hearing person on the other line. The process is then repeated in reverse.

Adele Shuart, a deaf woman in Ellicott City, typifies the feelings of the hearing-impaired about the system.

Mrs. Shuart, an ombudsman for state government's rehabilitative services agency, says she uses the system as many as 20 times a day. The ability to freely call hearing people has allowed her to increase her caseload.

Another deaf user says the new service saved him money on a recent purchase.

James Tucker, superintendent of the Maryland School for the Deaf, said that he used the system to shop for a new TV set -- and found a deal that saved him $200.

"Now I'm richer and do not waste much time," he said.

Started during Maryland's governmental budget crisis, the service's initial surcharge per line -- 45 cents a month -- was the nation's highest and generated more than 750 complaints.

But after paying off equipment, the fee was lowered to 17 cents.

The system's per capita call rate each month is now a little more than three per 100 state residents, making it the nation's highest.

Only New York, California and Texas -- states with far-larger populations -- have higher numbers of total calls on similar services.

One reason for the heavy usage in Maryland is the state's unusually large hearing- and speech-disabled population, state officials say.

Although there are no reliable recent figures, the state estimates that 350,000 of Maryland's 4.6 million people fall into one or both categories.

Institutions for the deaf, including Gallaudet University in Washington and the Maryland School for the Deaf, have helped develop a proactive disabled population here.

State officials also cite an educational campaign that has included television and radio spots, town meetings and newspaper advertisements.

"Our big job now is trying to educate the rest of the population," said Gilbert Becker, who manages the program for the state Department of General Services.

That is happening, slowly.

Michael Moore, a college professor from Greenbelt, said that when he first started using the system, businesses he called thought it was a telemarketing ploy.

Robert Weinstock, who works in public relations at Gallaudet, had a similar problem with his car insurance company. When he called recently, the switchboard cut him off.

"It just really made me angry," he said. "No matter how many times the communications assistant explains how to use the relay, some people just don't get it."

The system has other inherent difficulties.

Callers must rely on strangers to convey personal messages such as the death of a family member.

In a rapid, information age, talking by relay can also seem tedious. The delay between asking a question and receiving an answer can last 25 seconds.

Sprint runs the relay for the state with 151 operators from an office park in Northwest Baltimore.

The service operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, costing $5.7 million in the fiscal year that ended in June.

Sprint tries to teach operators to remain detached and avoid becoming involved in the conversation. Instructors also tell operators not to edit people's words or discuss the conversations with anyone else.

To ensure confidentiality, the floor housing the telecommunications center is restricted to operators and staff.

The computer screens cannot save text.

Despite the challenges the new system presents, deaf and speech-disabled people say it is a big improvement over the past.

Mrs. Shuart used to use a phone relay service staffed by volunteers. But there were restrictions on the number and length of calls she could make.

Once an operator cut her off after she exceeded the 15-minute time limit.

Now she calls as often and for as long as she wants.

"I feel emancipated," she said.

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