Relay keeps deaf in touch Phone system lets impaired place calls anywhere, any time

October 26, 1998|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

Take our money -- please.

People who are deaf, hard of hearing or speech-impaired have seen life improve since the inception of Maryland Relay, a free service that lets them place operator-assisted calls to anyone any time.

The struggle now is to get businesses to stop hanging up on them.

The service launched a $250,000 campaign this year, featuring print and television ads, to familiarize businesses with the service. On a typical call, the service greets an answerer with the phrase, "Hello, this is a Maryland Relay operator, have you ever received a Relay call before?" Many mistakenly think the operator is a telemarketer and end the conversation.

The disconnection can mean a lost sale.

Had they stayed on the line, they would learn that on the other end is a person who for whatever reason -- deafness, a speech impediment -- is typing into a TTY machine before an operator speaks the written words. The operator then types back to the caller and so forth.

Adele Shuart, who was born deaf and is now in her 60s, said when she gets a hang-up, she'll often call back and ask the operator not to announce the call, instead having the operator immediately speak Shuart's typewritten words explaining that she is deaf and trying to place a call.

"One of the most frustrating experiences I've had was when I called for a shuttle to the airport," Shuart said via the relay service. "The person receiving the call got angry and said he would not speak with the relay. I did not bother to call back because there were other shuttles I could contact. This one lost my business."

The service used to be handled by volunteers and operated on a hit-or-miss basis. But since 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, the state has funded the service. The relay, with a $6 million annual budget funded through a monthly assessment of 20 cents on every phone bill, is operated by Sprint.

Nancy Seidman, director of communications for the relay, said the service handles about 7,500 calls on an average weekday and 4,000 on weekends. The program is run through the state Department of Budget and Management.

Seidman said there are between 400,000 and 500,000 Marylanders who are deaf or hard of hearing, or who have speech impairments.

"It is important for business owners or managers to remember to speak directly to the caller and not to the operator," said Shuart, who lives in Ellicott City. "It is very difficult to convince the business people that the callers who are deaf or hard of hearing are the ones making the calls."

Seidman said when a deaf or hard-of-hearing person can't get through, they might do one of several things.

"They may call back repeatedly, or call a different business. If Mr. Tire hangs up on them, they'll call Kimmel," she said. "Sometimes the person has to drive to the business and say, 'Nobody would take my call.' Or we'll call the business and say, 'Did you know your staff is rude or they don't answer calls?' Business owners never want to hear that."

Pub Date: 10/26/98

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