711 system will aid deaf Telecommunications: Bell Atlantic hopes to streamline phone calling for the hearing impaired.

July 20, 1998|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

Bell Atlantic wants to make it easier for deaf and hearing-impaired people to make a phone call.

The company says it plans to be the first local phone company in the continental United States to install a streamlined calling system approved in 1997 by the Federal Communications Commission.

The system, expected to be in place in Maryland by next summer, will allow customers with hearing problems to dial 711 to reach telecommunications relay centers. Located all over the country, these centers act as conduits between the deaf and the hearing world.

They allow hearing-impaired callers to use an electronic typewriter to transmit their words over phone lines.

An operator at the relay center sees the text on a screen and reads it aloud to the person on the other end. When the other party responds, the operator types his words into a device that sends them to the deaf person's teletypewriter.

While they've become indispensable to those with hearing problems, relay centers are not always easy to use, said Karen Peltz Strauss at the National Association of the Deaf in Silver Spring. The problem is that each state has its own toll-free phone number and procedure for dialing into a relay center. There are more than 100 numbers nationwide, Strauss said.

The new 711 system would simplify the calling process by cutting the number of digits deaf or hearing impaired callers have to dial to reach a telecommunications relay center. Depending on the state, it can take as many as 21 numbers to complete a phone call. Under the new 711 system, hearing-impaired callers could dial as few as 13.

More importantly, the 711 system will eliminate the need to memorize new numbers for each state.

"Think of the power of having one number, no matter where you go in the country, to reach the hearing world," said Bell Atlantic spokesman Harry Mitchell. "We're hoping that other other local telephone companies around the nation will follow our lead on this."

Hawaii is the only state offering similar service.

Bell Atlantic officials said they hope to have the system in place by next summer across most of the company's 13-state territory. To do this, the company must receive permission from state regulators, who operate the relay centers by contracting with long-distance carriers such as Sprint and MCI.

Then Bell Atlantic must reprogram its computers to route calls to the nearest relay center in each state when somebody punches in 711. The company said it does not plan to charge customers to make these changes.

Until the early 1980s, the deaf relied mainly on family members to make phone calls for them. Then, a handful of states began setting up ad hoc relay centers staffed mostly by volunteers.

"It was pathetic," said Gil Becker, director of telecommunications access for the Maryland Department of Budget and Management. "There were all kinds of limitations. Volunteers would take message and say, 'I'll relay it later.' If they needed to make a doctor's appointment or business call, it could be a tremendous inconvenience."

It wasn't until the Americans with Disabilities Act was made law in 1990 that states were required to maintain round-the-clock relay centers.

Maryland, with a relatively high proportion of hearing impaired residents, has one of the busiest relay centers in the country. Each month it handles more than 200,000 calls. As a result, the state should be one of the first with 711 capability, officials said.

Maryland offers some of the conveniences that the new 711 system make possible. Unlike most states, for example, Maryland allows its residents to use the state's toll-free relay number anywhere in the country, Becker said.)

Meanwhile, Maryland officials plan to experiment with video relay centers in September. A hearing impaired caller would stand in front of a camera in his home or community center and use sign language, which be seen and interpreted by a trained relay operator.

This system, officials say, would not make conversations faster but also allow the operator to convey speaker's emotion, something not possible with text-based TTY systems.

"There's a lot of work left to do to make telecommunications easier for the deaf and hearing impaired," said Strauss.

Pub Date: 7/20/98

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