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Texting Revolution Allows Deaf to Communicate on Own Terms
New technologies such as the iPhone 4′s video chat software have profoundly changed millions of lives
Globe and Mail, Sep. 20, 2010
Talladega, Ala. – (The Associated Press ) – Quietly over the last decade, phones that make text messaging easy have changed life profoundly for millions of deaf people.
Gone are the days of a deaf person driving to someone’s house just to see if they are home. Wives text their deaf husbands in the basement, just as a hearing wife might yell down the stairs. Deaf teens blend in with the mall crowd since they’re constantly texting, like everyone else in high school.
Visit the Alabama School for the Deaf, and it’s impossible to miss the signs of a revolution that many hearing people simply never noticed. Most everyone at the school in Talladega has at least one handheld texting device, and some have two. At lunch, deaf diners order burgers and fries by text: Punch in the order and show it at the counter.
For the first time, a generation of deaf people can communicate with the world on its terms, using cellphones, BlackBerrys or iPhones, of which some 260 million are in use in the United States.
Matt Kochie, who is deaf, has been texting his entire adult life and has a hard time imagining a day without it.
“We’d have to go back to pen and paper,” said Mr. Kochie, 29, a teacher at the school. “We’d have to write back and forth to communicate.”
Deaf people still generally favour signing when talking face-to-face. It’s faster and more expressive than pecking out letters on a tiny keyboard.
For generations, deaf people communicated mainly by sign language, gesturing, lip-reading and writing. Telephone lines then allowed for TTY machines that deaf people could use to send printed messages electronically.
Machines linked to landlines are still used, as are services involving operators who interpret for the deaf during phone conversations, plus e-mail and video phone calls. But advocates for the deaf say life began changing
rapidly after 1999, when the first BlackBerry was introduced by Canadian manufacturer Research in Motion.
Further advances in technology could make communication even easier. Many deaf people are eager to see if the video chat software on the new iPhone 4 works well for sign-language communication, said Daphne Keith, at a mobile-phone store near the Alabama School for the Deaf. Similarly, an
engineering team at the University of Washington is working on a device to
transmit American Sign Language video over cell networks.
Partly because of the ease of texting for the deaf, a few cities including Cincinnati have adopted texting as a way to accept emergency calls. Deaf and hearing-impaired residents must dial a special number rather than 911, however.
Neither deaf advocacy groups nor cell providers are sure exactly how many of the nation’s deaf or hard-of-hearing people use texting.
A survey by a Washington-based trade group, CTIA-The Wireless Association, found that there were 257 million data-capable handheld devices in use in the United States last year, up from 228 million just a year earlier. Of
those, some 50 million were smart phones or wireless-enabled PDAs.
Derek Schmitz, who graduated from the Mississippi School for the Deaf this year and is beginning Gallaudet University, said texting has made it easier for deaf people to form friendships with hearing people that would have been difficult just a few years ago.
“I do use texting to communicate with hearing people,” said Mr. Schmitz, 19. “[Communications] between hearing people and deaf people are improving a lot by texting.”