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September 20, 2010

Wide Proliferation of Texting and Video Chat a Boon to the Hearing Impaired

By Tracey E. Schelmetic, TMCnet Contributor


Most people find text messaging convenient – increasingly so, according to studies that show our rates of text usage are climbing each year. But it's easy to forget that there is a group of people for whom texting has opened up a whole new world of communications: the hearing impaired. Advocates for the deaf say life began changing rapidly after 1999, when the first BlackBerry (News - Alert) was introduced by Canada's Research in Motion.

Though deaf people report that they generally favor using sign language, sometimes through an interpreter, when talking face-to-face, since it's faster and more expressive, many have reported that text messaging has made life easier and offers them more independence. Some deaf people have said that text messaging was responsible for fostering friendships with hearing people that would have been difficult and frustrating, if not impossible, just a decade ago. Many hearing-impaired people even report using texting at home among family members: for example, a deaf parent texting from the kitchen to his or her children in their bedrooms to let them know supper is ready.

It seems that many U.S. carriers are aware of the potential to provide special services to hearing-impaired Americans and now offer custom wireless packages for the hearing-impaired. T-Mobile, for example offers data-only communications packages for people who don't want or need voice communications services. Both Verizon and AT&T (News - Alert) also offer plans that cater to the deaf. Verizon has a text-only plan for $54.99 a month that includes unlimited messaging, Web browsing, data usage and e-mail. Additionally, some service providers offer the deaf special services such as captioned movie information.

Mobile and smart phones have opened other avenues of communications for the hearing impaired: Internet relay service is another option that is growing in the face of the widespread use of mobile devices, particularly those with video capabilities. Traditional relay services allow deaf people to place calls to standard telephones, using a keyboard to communicate. Internet relay services allow users to access a relay service via a Web site or or instant messaging. Video relays, which can be used for chat, can be accessed by contacting the relay service via a videophone. Some cell phones (the T-mobile Sidekick, for example) have free software installed for contacting relay services without using instant messaging.

Many deaf people are eager to see if the video chat software on the new Apple iPhone (News - Alert) 4 works well for sign-language communication. Similarly, an engineering team at the University of Washington is working on a device to transmit American Sign Language video over cell networks.

In light of the rise of text messaging among the hearing-impaired, a few cities, including Cincinnati, have even adopted texting as a way to place emergency calls, helping eliminate a frustrating and dangerous limitation for many hearing impaired people: The ability to pick up the phone and contact 911.


Tracey Schelmetic is a contributing editor for TMCnet. To read more of Tracey's articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Juliana Kenny


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