Wireless world widens for hearing-impaired
10:50 PM PDT on Monday, June 14, 2004
For the deaf and hard-of-hearing, communications technology has to crash through one more barrier before the new possibilities open to them.
The convenience of mobile phones, a go-nearly-anywhere communications tool widely used by the hearing world for the past decade, has been made possible for the deaf within the past few years.
Earlier this month, MCI officially launched its own wireless communication system, adding to the short but growing list of options. Using a wireless data device, hearing-impaired callers can run a phone call through an operator who will speak the typed words and act as an intermediary between the caller and a hearing person using a conventional phone on the other end.
For people like Pablo Diaz, a community advocate with the Center on Deafness - Inland Empire, such services are indispensable.
"It's extremely convenient," said Diaz, through a sign-language translator. "I always keep it with me."
Such devices still fall short. Typing is no more of a natural way for deaf people to carry on personal conversations than it is for the rest of the world. Angela White, the center's director, said signing is the most natural way of conversing.
Various companies, including MCI, Sprint and Sorenson, an Internet video company, have introduced video relay options. The options are high-resolution videophones that deaf callers can use to speak to one another or call hearing people through a translator acting as intermediary.
The drawback is that such services require reliable high-speed Internet connections. Erik Lasiewski, who handles technology at Riverside's California School for the Deaf, said the school will need to add considerable bandwidth to accommodate enough video connections.
High-speed video services have already pushed beyond the simple phone call. Clubdeaf. com, a site started by two business partners in La Jolla, combined chat rooms with video to create the framework of an online deaf social club.
Bert Pickell, a hearing son of deaf parents and one of clubdeaf.com's founders, said the company plans to introduce new features that will allow one user to view several people at the same time to create a real-time group conversation.
Pickell said the point of the site is to mimic social clubs that traditionally helped deaf people find friends and peers in some communities.
"I watched as the deaf clubs set the social agenda for the deaf community," Pickell said. "As time has progressed, those clubs have started to disappear. I wanted to create the same thing online."
The next generation for deaf communication would combine the natural and quick aspects of video-based sign language with talk anywhere, cell phone mobility. Diaz said that sort of convenience is on his wish list for future communications options - even if it doesn't give every convenience afforded to the hearing public.
"Of course, you still couldn't drive and sign into the phone at the same time," Diaz said.
Reach Paul Herrera at (909) 806-3074 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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