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Technology for the Deaf

Text Messaging and Video Relay: Innovative Communication Options

By Kimberly A. Aherns

        Michael Lawson was diagnosed with bilateral sensorineural hearing loss at 16 months of age. Living close to the Jersey shore all his life, he loves to be home over the summer so he can take advantage of its proximity to the water. He loves going to the boardwalk, running on the beach, or just hanging out w i t h friends. Michael is also an avid soccer player. He played four years of varsity soccer while attending the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology pursing his BS in Social Work. He has traveled all over the world playing soccer for the USA Deaf Soccer Team, and the team recently participated in the first ever Deaf World Cup tournament in Patras, Greece. During his world travels, he went bungee jumping and loves showing a video of his jumps to anyone who will watch.

       Michael’s primary means of communication is American Sign Language (ASL). When he is not in the presence of another sign language user or when he wants to communicate with someone at a distance, he has found two kinds of technology to be indispensable:
a cellphone called the T-Mobile Sidekick  www.sidekick. com/family.aspx) and a video phone.

T-Mobile Sidekick for Texting and SIPRelay
When he is on the go, Michael relies on his T-Mobile Sidekick. With its full QWERTY keyboard and 2.6 inch display, he can easily send and receive text messages, just like any cell phone user.

      The added advantage for Michael is that he can use text messaging to communicate with a hearing person if he is in a situation without a sign language interpreter, such as at a restaurant, in a store, or any other
public place. Additionally, the Sidekick can use a Sorenson (www.sorensonvrs. com) program called SIPRelay ( which is a free download that acts as a middleman between Michael and a hearing person. Michael connects to the SIPRelay server on his Sidekick, types a text message and tT-Mobile Sidekickhe phone number of the person he want to reach, and an operator calls the number and reads the message. Michael uses this method to do things such as order a pizza or call family or friends.


The T-Mobile Sidekick with full QWERTY keyboard and 2.6” display.

VP-200 Video Phone with Video Relay Service

         A second piece of technology that Michael uses is a video phone called the VP-200 which works with the Sorenson Video Relay Service (SRVS). This service offers similar, but better, services than the SIPRelay. The SVRS connects to a regular television set and uses a highspeed internet connection to relay video. Michael uses the VP-200 to connect to a sign language interpreter who then translates his signs orally over the phone
for the intended hearing person. This is especially helpful for Michael when he is at home and wants to  communicate with a hearing person without texting. Additionally, Michael can contact someone directly without the relay service if the person also has a VP-200. In this arrangement, both parties sign to each other and can see the other’s signing. If a person has a laptop with a webcam, they can also be contacted directly. The video relay technology makes it possible for deaf people to communicate just as immediately as hearing people do on a telephone.

      Michael prefers using the VP-200 whenever possible. Unlike using a TTY or his Sidekick, communication using this system is immediate and he can speak in his own language. When using the SVRS, there is no cost to him for using the translator, nor are there restrictions on how long he can use the service. The service is available to Michael 24 hours a day, and he can use the service to place emergency phone calls. He has found the translators to be friendly and helpful, which makes using the service that much better.

      Everything Michael needs in order to use this device is on a remote. The remote has buttons and arrows to help him navigate through the screens on the device, including altering the angle of the device, as well as a zoom. Using the remote, Michael can also access his missed calls and his SignMail (as opposed to VoiceMail). Hearing contacts can leave a message for Michael using the SVRS and the interpreter, while friends who are deaf can leave their own signed video message.


Screen Layout
       Using the remote, Michael can filter through the different options. On the main screen, there are options to visit “Call History,” “Contacts,” or “Settings.” There is also an option to choose VP calling or SVRS calling. From these three main options, Michael can filter through the options to add contacts, make a phone call, change call settings, and more.

      The screen changes as different parts of the device are activated. For example, if Michael receives a call from his girlfriend, a box appears that provides Michael with her name, phone number, and whether he wants to accept the call or let it be busy. Furthermore, as soon as Michael answers the call, an option appears that allows him to choose if he wants to hang up the call.

      When on a call, the monitor shows two different videos at the same time. The first video displayed is that of the person being contacted, whether that is someone using VP or SVRS. In the opposite corner, a second video is displayed of Michael that shows him how he is being received by the person connected with him. This is important because it helps Michael check the room lighting and his position in front of the camera.

      What makes this system so effective is that it is a video relay service as opposed to a typed relay service. Since Michael’s primary language is American Sign Language (ASL), he can communicate with people more efficiently through his own language. Michael explained how this use of technology allows people who are deaf or hard of hearing to experience all the benefits of technology while still embracing Deaf culture. For these reasons he highly recommends the Sorenson Video Relay Service with the VP-200 to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. At the time of this writing, Sorenson Communications will provide a free VP-200 to people who meet the following criteria: 1) are deaf or hard-of-hearing, 2) use sign language, and 3) already have a high-speed Internet connection.

Kimberly A. Ahrens is graduating in May, 2009 from The College of New Jersey’s 5-year program with an M.A.T. in Special Education.

Grace’s Law Assists Children who Use Hearing Aids

Beginning April 1, 2009 New Jersey state law requires all health insurers to cover the cost of hearing aids for children 15 years old and younger. The coverage must provide up to $1,000 per hearing aid and must be provided every 24 months. Grace’s Law was named after Grace Gleba, a nine year old girl from Washington Township (Warren County) who has used hearing aids since she was three months old. She and her mother, Jeanine, had lobbied forcefully for the law’s passage.



New Jersey Unit of RFB&D’s Learning Through Listening Educational Outreach Center

       The New Jersey Unit of Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic’s (RFB&D) Learning Through Listening Educational Outreach Center serves students with visual, learning or other physical disabilities. The program provides assistance and information to individuals, schools and teachers throughout New Jersey about RFB&D’s services and how best to use it’s resources. An RFB&D membership provides access to the Learning Through Listening® Library of more than 98,000 titles. Additionally, RFB&D’s reference librarians can search the collections to tell members what titles are available in specific subject areas.

      RFB&D offers two membership options: Individual Memberships are available to anyone who is unable to effectively read due to a vision impairment, physical disability or specific learning disability. The Institutional Membership program is designed to meet the growing demand of schools who need a convenient and flexible method of providing educational accommodations for their students with qualifying disabilities. Individual memberships are appropriate for students who can independently select and order their own books. Institutional Memberships are for schools that order books for multiple students. Institutional Membership and individual memberships work well when used together. For example, a school can use its Institutional Membership to order the standard curriculum for its students, while each student may have his or her own membership to borrow reading materials which supplement the curriculum.

      If you are a New Jersey teacher or administrator who needs additional support with book orders, contact the New Jersey Unit Educational Outreach Center: 609-750-0595.



Forcina Hall, Room 101

The College of New Jersey

P.O. Box 7718

Ewing, NJ 08628-0718

P) 609.771.2795




Professor Amy G. Dell

Managing Editor

Anne M. Disdier