IM products help the deaf stay in touch

Accident: Through pagers, disabled users experience new form of convenience.

April 18, 2002|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

Scott Vollmar pages his friends to tell them he'll be late for an appointment because he has errands to run. Elaine Kam uses her pager to check e-mail from her boss before she goes to work.

And Marlon Monroyo leaves his pager on at night so that his girlfriend in Austria can offer up a sweet "Guten Morgen" first thing in the morning by instant message.

The three college seniors can't use cell phones for these normal communication chores because they're deaf or hard of hearing.

Last fall, technology from America Online brought them a little closer to the on-the-go convenience of cell phones by offering them a free pager that has access to both AOL e-mail and the company's Instant Messenger service, known as AIM.

They were part of a pilot project from November to April at Washington's Gallaudet University, the nation's only university for deaf and hard-of-hearing students - where pagers have become the rage on campus.

"I think the pilot program went like gangbusters," says William Millios, an assistant professor in Gallaudet's Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. "The idea of being able to walk across campus, and send somebody a question, and have an answer before you arrive at a meeting you were walking towards is a godsend."

Debbie Fletter, director of accessibility for America Online, calls the AIM connection with deaf people "a happy accident."

The service, which allows users to send and receive instant text messages over the Internet, wasn't developed with the deaf in mind and can be used by anyone, says Fletter. "But when you untether IM from the PC, you have freedom for someone who is deaf."

AOL's Mobile Communicator, the gadget that Gallaudet students use, actually is a RIM-manufactured device, a two-way text pager with a mini-keyboard that sports AOL's logo and uses AOL software. Messages appear on a 2-by-1-inch LCD screen, six lines at a time.

AOL, based in Dulles, Va., is the world's largest Internet Service Provider, with 34 million subscribers. It provides the $100 communicator free to AOL subscribers who are deaf or hard of hearing. They, in turn, pay $29.95 a month for the paging service, in addition to the regular AOL membership fee of $23.90.

The wireless connection is handled by Cingular, whose service covers much of the U.S. East Coast and many major cities throughout the rest of the country.

Communicator owners don't need to sign long-term service agreements for their pagers or pay activation fees with AOL.

AOL has had instant messaging for its members since 1989, but the current service, with its easy-to-use Buddy Lists, turned on the instant messaging craze in 1997. AIM software, which can be used by non-AOL members, too, is free and can be downloaded from www.aol.com.

While Gallaudet students can use their Communicators to read regular e-mail, Instant Messenger is their killer app.

"You're not just sending a message to a number and not knowing if you'll get an answer back," Fletter says. "You see first who's available [on the Buddy List] and then you can send the message for an instant response or reaction."

Kam, 23, says she used IM on computers before getting the pager. But the new service is much more convenient.

"Before all the wireless IM came, I missed out on trying to meet my friends," she says. "We missed each other when we had appointments. ... I envy hearing people who have cell phones because they can communicate with someone when they're alone, and we deaf people do not have that advantage."

When Monroyo, 27, gets lost, he messages his brother for directions. "On campus, almost everyone has a pager. You see them using it in the bathroom ... you see them using it in class. ... They even chat next to each other," he says.

Other paging services, specifically targeted to deaf people, have been around for years, with the largest increase in use over the past three years.

Before pagers became widely available, deaf people who wanted to communicate instantly were limited to a text-telephone called a TTY. These keyboard-operated phones can communicate directly with other TTY devices, or through a relay system with an operator who acts as an intermediary between a deaf caller and a person with normal hearing.

But TTY phones are relatively expensive, starting at $200. They're not portable, and users complain that they don't provide much privacy when someone needs to use an operator. So when pagers became available, they found a ready-made market.

Claude Stout, executive director of Telecommunications for the Deaf Inc., a nonprofit agency that promotes equal access, says pagers are generally "faster, more personal and more direct."

"People with normal hearing started having cell phones and pagers five to 10 years before us," Stout says. "Now, it has just exploded."

When terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, many deaf people learned about the disasters by pager, Stout says.

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