Phone service of deaf won by AT&T

State awards pact that includes new state-of-art center

March 28, 2002|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

Mitchell D. Travers remembers the bad old days of telephoning for the deaf in Maryland when his mother had to make calls and translate for him as a teen-ager and young adult.

"Yes, even for dates," recalled Travers, of Greenbelt, now 52. "She would conduct the conversation in her motherly way, rather than how I would have, but there was no other choice. Does that give you an idea of what life was like?"

A new age is coming, however: The Maryland Board of Public Works awarded AT&T Corp. a three-year, $24.5 million contract yesterday that includes a new state-of-the-art center for teletype telephone service for the deaf and hard of hearing.

AT&T submitted the low bid over Sprint Corp., which had run the Maryland Relay Service since it started in 1991.

The new center will employ 185 people when it opens in June in the Environmental Elements building at 3700 Koppers St. in southwest Baltimore.

The facility will operate the text-telephone system, or TTY. People who are deaf or hard of hearing can converse via the system using a phone that costs more than $150. The users type a message, an operator reads it to the person on the other end of the conversation and then types responses so the deaf caller can read it on his TTY device.

The new center will add several features, said Gilbert L. Becker, director of the Maryland Relay Service, an arm of the state Department of Budget and Management.

Users will be able to access it through the Internet, enabling them to make calls away from home. They will also be able to have Caller ID and participate in conference calls. The current system can't accommodate conference calls because the fastest typists, able to type at roughly 100 words a minute, can't keep up with multiple communications of 200 words a minute.

Maryland's system is one of the busiest and oldest in the nation. It began in December 1991, about 18 months before the federal Americans with Disabilities Act required it.

The system has the fifth-heaviest volume in the United States and is one of the busiest on a per-capita basis.

Maryland has a large deaf population partly because of its proximity to the nation's capital, and to lobbying organizations for the deaf and hearing-impaired. The state also is near Gallaudet University in Washington, the nation's only university for the deaf and hearing impaired, Becker said.

Maryland's service has quadrupled from about 50,000 calls a month in 1991 to 200,000 now. But growth has slowed, partly because of competition from other means of telecommunications such as e-mail and text-message pagers, Becker said. Nationally, the system has mushroomed from 6 million minutes in 1993 to 250 million minutes last year as states were added.

Before the U.S. government mandated the system, churches and service organizations offered text typing for deaf callers, but the service reportedly was limited and sporadic. Deaf people sometimes hired typists on their own.

Maryland will be AT&T's ninth center, serving 13 states, said a company spokeswoman, Candace Humphrey. AT&T's first TTY center opened in California in 1987.

A 20-cent tax on all phone lines pays for the system.

Travers, who chairs an advisory committee to the governor on communications for the deaf, lauded the planned improvements. He does not believe that increased use of wireless text messaging and e-mail will make TTY systems obsolete.

"Those can never replace live, interactive personal communications," said Travers, an information systems manager with MedStar Health, a not-for-profit health care organization. "Rather than making telephone calls less necessary, this has made them more effective. It is probably the most important technology service that deaf and hard-of-hearing people can have in their lives."

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