For many years, telephones were a barrier between the deaf community and society. For instance, when jobs required a phone, many deaf persons were denied advancements at work. Technology also served as the tool to break down those barriers, though, and it continues to do so up to the present. This article will explore the history of telecommunications for the deaf, from early attempts at bridging the divide to current options.
History of Telecommunications Access for the Deaf
A deaf electrical scientist named Robert Weitbrecht created an audio coupler that translated sounds into writing in 1964. The teletype machine transformed signals from a normal telephone mounted on a coupler into a text message in print. The deaf individual receiving a call was informed that the phone was ringing by a flashing light.
The availability of this telephone device, often known as a teletypewriter (TTY) telecommunication device for the deaf (TDD), allowed the deaf to contact a friend, a group, or anybody else who possessed the same device. TTY deaf communication opened the doors of telecommunication for a huge group of people.
TTY Relay Services
There was still a problem, though, because most individuals had telephones. TTY relay services were then established, which connect deaf and hard-of-hearing users of TTY with persons who are using telephones. This started as voluntary work with constrained hours and locations.
The communication assistant (CA) for the TTY relay service links TTY relay calls with telephone users. Text-to-voice and voice-to-text communication are converted by the CA. On the user’s TTY, the text is visible.
Deaf and hard-of-hearing persons may now phone their hearing relatives and friends, schedule personal appointments, place pizza orders, and make other independent calls thanks to TTY relay services.
In 1987, California was the first among U.S. states to enact legislation requiring the creation of a state Telecommunications Relay Program. Soon after, an unorganized network of relay services developed across the nation as other local governments started their own state relay systems.
Title IV of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 required that in every state and territory, worldwide relay services have to be accessible around the clock. Deaf and hard-of-hearing persons were finally able to call anybody on the phone well over 100 years after the telephone’s inception.
The Current State of Technology for Deaf Communication
Anyone can now contact the original TTY relay services by calling 711 from a phone or TTY.
Access is now available to non-Internet-based relay services nationwide, including TTY, speech-to-speech (STS), voice-carry-over (VCO), and hearing-carry-over (HCO) relay services, through the 711 calling capability.
As technological solutions and relay programs, such as Internet-based relay facilities, have become available, more TTY users have switched to other means of communication to connect to the phone network. However, many deaf or hard-of-hearing persons continue to utilize TTYs, particularly those who cannot access readily available, reasonably priced broadband and Internet services. TTYs continue to be crucial because they give users an easy way to connect to 9-1-1 emergency services.
Communication Barriers Continuously Broken by Technology
The latest developments in technology enable the deaf and people who are hard-of-hearing and to be active participants in business and commerce, education, government, and social interactions. These are opening up new opportunities for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.
With text messaging and videophones, people can easily communicate with text or by using sign language. Another recent development is captioned telephone services, which provide real-time captions of spoken conversation for people with hearing loss. These services use voice recognition technology to transcribe the words that are spoken into text, which is then displayed on the screen of the captioned telephone. This service is available from a number of different providers.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other laws have mandated the use of assistive listening systems (ALS) in public places so that people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can have access to live audio. These systems use a variety of technologies, including induction loop systems, FM systems, and infrared (IR) systems.
Induction loop systems, also called audio loop systems or hearing loop systems, use a wire that is installed around the perimeter of a room. The wire carries an electromagnetic signal that can be picked up by a telecoil, or T-coil, which is built into most hearing aids and cochlear implants.
FM systems use radio frequencies to transmit sound from a microphone to a receiver that is worn by the person who is deaf or hard of hearing. The receiver can be either a body-worn unit or a hearing aid that has been equipped with an FM receiver.
Infrared (IR) systems use infrared light to transmit sound from a microphone to a similar receiver.
The widespread availability of software that translates spoken words into texts means that companies can provide employees and clients who are deaf or hard-of-hearing with access to audio information that was previously inaccessible. This can be done by telephone, in face-to-face meetings, or even in large auditoriums and conference centers.
The deaf community has come a long way since the days of TTYs, and communication barriers are continuously being broken down by technology.