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by Rosemary Musachio, Accessibility Analyst

I remember the first time I used the TTY (teletypewriter, or teletext as it is now called). I was so excited to use the phone not just for listening but for communicating also. No more “yes” or “no” codes over the phone; now my thoughts could be transmitted on the screen to the other party. At the time, relay services did not exist, so I could only make calls to two other TTY users: one of my friends and the school speech pathologist.

When a volunteer-organized relay service was established in the mid-eighties, it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Now persons with hearing and/or speech impairments could call anyone through the TTY. An operator would verbally relay typed messages to non-TTY parties and textually relay voice comments to TTY users. Using the relay service back then, however, felt as if I was making calls from a prison sometimes. It only allowed one or two calls per day with a twenty-minute time limit. Therefore, I had to prioritize my calls for each day. If the limits weren’t bad enough, users often had to wait up to thirty minutes for the relay operator to become available since only one relay operator worked each shift.

Thanks to Title IV of the Americans with Disabilities (ADA), Section 225 was added to the Communications Act of 1994, which caused relay calls to emerge from the dark ages. The law provides persons with hearing and speech disabilities equal access to telecommunications so they can conduct business, consumer and personal calls freely. Title IV established a national telecommunication relay service (TRS) where relay users can make unlimited number of calls without time constraints by dialing 711 anywhere in the United States. The law also prevents relay operators, also known as calling assistants (CAs), from altering conversations and other possible obtrusive actions.

Since computers have become synonymous with telecommunications, Section 225 further governs Internet Protocol (IP) Relay Services. IP Relay Service outdoes TRS in some ways. Unlike TRS, IP Relay Service does not require TTYs. Persons with communication impairments can conduct relay conversations from a website, such as www.i711.com, or from America Online Instant Messenger (AIM). Personally, making a relay call through AIM is very convenient, especially since I also use AIM to communicate with my work associates. I just ping i711 on AIM (other IP Relay Service providers also are on AIM) and enter the number I would like to call in the chat window. The CA dials the number and then we begin the relay conversation if the other party answers. Besides convenience, callers can make free (that’s right, I said FREE) long distance calls through IP Relay since the call is over the Internet, not the phone line. International calls, however, still cannot be placed.

While relay calling has become indispensable for persons with hearing and speech disabilities, it still presents obstacles. For example, when some people receive relay calls, they assume the calls are a prank and hang up even though the CA explains the calling method. When the CA redials upon the request of the relay user, the receiving party usually has a few choice words. Some people also can become almost speechless when they receive relay calls. Here’s how the conversation can go:

Relay caller: “Hi, I need to schedule a taxi ride for next Tuesday (GA)” [GA means go ahead] CA types receiver’s response: “ok”
Relay caller: “Can you take me to 55 Bridge Street next Tuesday (Q) (GA)”
CA types receiver’s response: “yes”
Relay caller: “Do you want to know the time I’d like to be picked up (Q) (GA)”
CA types receiver’s response: “sure”
Relay caller: “I’d like to be picked up at 3:15 P.M. (GA)”
CA types receiver’s response: “got it” [Two words, wow!] Relay caller: “Thanks very much. Bye (SK)” [SK means Send to Kill] CA: Party has hung up

I have experienced similar kinds of conversations. Imagine how many times my eyes rolled during them. Because a third party assists with calls, some people act robotically since they may view the calls as automated. They also may consider relay calls as second class or censored, as when operators used to place calls in 1930’s and 1940’s.

The 21st century technological innovation of online customer service just happens to be an ideal alternative to relay calls. When I chat with a customer representative on a business website, I don’t have to worry about someone hanging up or stifled conversations. Since customer representatives who handle online chats do not know that I cannot speak, I’m on equal grounds with anyone else who makes online inquiries. Another type of online customer service that businesses are starting to offer is through Twitter where consumers can tweet their questions and feedback. Again, persons with communication impairments benefit from a technology that was developed for the masses.

Another technological breakthrough that has been developed for the public but proved vital for the deaf and non-verbal communities is texting. Persons with hearing or speech disabilities can text anyone anywhere at any time just like everyone else. They do not need a TTY or a computer. They do not need a third party to assist with conversations. All that is required is a cell phone or other mobile device. Since I cannot talk but can hear, I text through AIM or Windows Live Messenger and then listen to the other party on the speakerphone.

Telecommunications for the hearing and speech-impaired population have gone from niches to popular innovation. Although the TTY and relay service still are essential, online chats and texting have caused a kind of desegregation where those without disabilities can use the same kinds of technologies, as those with disabilities need to use. That’s bridging the digital divide.