Giving A New Voice To A World Of Silence

Posted: July 05, 1991

For nearly half her life, Nathalie Devigne has studied piano, moving from a clanking beginner stumbling over scales to a skilled musician.

It is quite an accomplishment for someone who has been deaf since birth.

For Devigne, a Berwyn resident who is 16, the silence that envelops her has been a challenge she struggles daily to overcome.

Even a determined teenager can be afraid in a world where words of warning cannot be heard and cries for help may be misunderstood.

But for the last 10 months, Devigne and thousands of other deaf people in Pennsylvania have had a new voice of sorts - using a computer, telephone line and a human voice - that is making the world a lot less scary.

The electronic command center for the new system is in Wayne, and it passes messages from deaf people to retailers, doctors, police and friends.

On the first day last year that Devigne used the relay center, operated by American Telephone & Telegraph Co., she told her mother in sign language: ''Now I can call someone in an emergency. I'm not scared anymore."

Devigne's life has changed in other ways, too.

Some are small: A pizza ordered all by herself.

Some are touching: A surprise bouquet of flowers for her mother.

All this adds up to new independence for Devigne and for about 80,000 deaf people in Pennsylvania who can now use the relay center for calls anywhere in the state.

To make the connection to the center, a deaf person types a message into a Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TDD), which converts the typed words into electronic impulses for transmission over regular telephone lines to a computer screen in Wayne.

A communication assistant there reads the words to the recipient by telephone and then types the responses back to the deaf person's TDD, which costs between $249.99 and $599.99 for AT&T's models. Each call using the system costs the same as a regular call.

The communication assistants spend hours typing and talking, switching from the mundane to the moving, linking the deaf with the hearing.

About half of the calls are business-related.

TDDs have made the deaf an increasingly attractive market for retailers, airlines and hotel chains. There are an estimated 20 million hearing-impaired Americans, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Of those, 16 million are severely deaf, according to Telecommunications for the Deaf Inc. a nonprofit advocacy group pushing for telephone and television accessibility for hearing-impaired. In addition, about 2.3 million people whose speech is impaired can use the TDD system.

As the U.S. population grows older on average, the number of hearing- impaired people is expected to rise. However, there have been fewer deaf children in the nation's schools. "The bulk of the drop was caused by the introduction of the Rubella vaccine in 1969," said Scott Brown, research scientist at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf outside Washington. Rubella, or German measles, can cause deafness at birth.

"Certainly, by 1983-84, the Rubella kids were out of school, and everything after that represents the drop due to the vaccine," he said.

The eight TDD relay centers run by AT&T cover 11 states, and they handled 5 million calls last year. If the increases of the last several years continue in 1991, the number of calls is expected to reach about 7 million. A number of volunteer organizations also run relay centers, most limited to evening hours on weekdays. AT&T opened the nation's first 24-hour-a-day relay center in California in 1987.

There will soon be more centers - and more companies are interested in running them.

Some of the local telephone companies are becoming interested, as well as some of the long-distance carriers, said Ronald G. Hatley, a consumer-affairs manager at AT&T.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that every state have relay service by July 26, 1993, he said. Where no service exists, states can order telephone companies to offer it.

In 1990, AT&T was the winning bidder on a five-year contract to run the relay center for the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission. It is expected that centers like Pennsylvania's, which are already certified by the Federal Communications Commission and are in operation, will continue to provide service after the act takes effect, but regulations are still being written.

At the Wayne center, communication assistants play Cyrano de Bergerac in reverse.

They must remain "transparent," never interjecting themselves into the conversation. They use code numbers instead of names and try to wipe conversations from their memories as they wipe conversations from their computer screens.

Sometimes the work is exhausting. One moment they may relay a preference for pepperoni to a pizza parlor; the next they may be party to the emotional ping pong of a lover's quarrel; or wait to hear the results of a medical test, or relay an emergency call to the police.

Repeating the caller's words can be uncomfortable, especially during a quarrel between the parties. "If they say drop dead, or worse, we have to type it or say it," said one operator.

Some calls go on for hours, slowed by the need to type. "Some of them

break down in tears and need to take a rest," said Robert Martin, resource manager for the center.

The assistants receive sensitivity training, and some have asked for sign- language training. "The experience seems to change and sensitize people," said Martin.

Sandy C. Duncan, director of the Pennsylvania Office for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired, pushed hard for the regulation that helped finance the center by tacking an 8-cent monthly charge on home phone lines and a 16-cent monthly charge on business lines. The charges apply to all lines in the state. The PUC has decided to drop the charges to 3 cents on home lines and 6 cents on business lines on July 1.

"Now I can make an appointment with my doctor, my dentist," Duncan said. ''For a number of years, I had to ask other people. I hated that. I felt it was imposing, asking people, begging people for help."

The deaf can be a loyal market.

In 1985, when Holiday Inns became the first major hotel system to install a TDD line, more than 30,000 calls poured in for reservations.

"No hotel had ever thought deaf people wanted to make reservations independently," said Anne Edwards, community-service director for Telecommunications for the Deaf Inc., a Washington-area association for the deaf. "They thought they wanted their mothers to make calls for them or something."

Companies wooing the deaf with TDD customer lines include Readers Digest, L.L. Bean, QVC, Alaska Airlines, Delta, Sears, Amoco, Southwest Airlines and Strawbridge & Clothier. Sears says it receives 100 call a day, and a spokeswoman adds, "The deaf are a growing market. This is an important market for us."

Eileen Craig, Devigne's teacher at the Fugett Middle School in West Chester, has four other hearing-impaired students, whom she encourages to use the relay center. At first, they were skeptical, but now they are steady customers.

"A student's father called to tell her he was all right while he was in the hospital," said Craig. " For the first time, he could talk to his daughter himself (by telephone) without her mom having to sign on the other end."

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