It still seems miraculous for Tami Richardson-Nelson: She can use her smartphone to call her son from Walmart and see if he needs anything.
At work at Creighton University, she can use a phone to call and order office supplies.
And at home over the weekend, she can ring up her friends to organize softball games and Husker football parties.
None of this used to be possible for Richardson-Nelson and other deaf people, who for years had to rely on other people to make a call for them, or use clunky TTY typing machines that transmit words, but with a delay and without emotion.
New high-tech video telephone technology from companies with operations in Omaha lets Richardson-Nelson make calls any time, from anywhere, in her own language — sign language.
“I can do anything that you can do now, because of this technology,” she said through an interpreter. “You have a phone, I have a phone.”
The companies that provide these services say the new avenues of communication are available thanks to evolving video technology, high-speed internet connections and, often, software and hardware engineers who are deaf or have a deaf family member and seek to make their lives better.
The requirement, under the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, is that deaf people have “functionally equivalent” access to communications services. Today's technology is bringing reality closer to the ideal, said Paul Kershisnik, chief marketing officer for Sorenson Communications, one of the companies with an Omaha call center.
“Our earlier video phones where you're tethered to your phone couldn't let you do that,” he said.
A video call works like this: Richardson-Nelson uses either her smartphone or a videophone hooked up to a computer or television screen to place a call, which is routed over a high-speed internet connection through a remote call center staffed with sign language interpreters.
The interpreter watches Richardson-Nelson signing, and simultaneously speaks the words to the recipient of the call. What the recipient says back, the interpreter signs to Richardson-Nelson.
The result is a lively, seamless conversation in real time, with the interpreter catching and communicating all the nuances of humor, sympathy or urgency.
Two of the three biggest companies that offer this video relay service have call centers in Omaha, among other cities, hiring several dozen local sign language interpreters between them to handle calls coming and going across the nation.
Sorenson Communications, a privately held company based in Salt Lake City, Utah, has a call center in a professional office building near 132nd Street and West Maple Road. ZVRS has a call center in the Mastercraft Building in north Downtown. That company originated in Sioux Falls, S.D., as a nonprofit called Communication Service for the Deaf, and is now a for-profit business based in Clearwater, Fla.
The centers get paid by the minute for the video relay services they provide, about $6.24 per minute, for a collective 9 million minutes a month nationwide, through the Interstate Telecommunications Relay Service Fund. Money flows into the fund from telecom providers, which are charged about 1 percent of their annual interstate telecommunications revenue.
The fund is separate from the Nebraska telecommunications relay service surcharge that pays for access to “intrastate” telecommunications services and equipment for people who are hearing impaired, speech impaired, deaf or blind. Those services include earlier technology like TTY and CapTel machines. The state surcharge will fall in July to 3 cents a month from 4 cents as fewer people use those options and more use the video relay service and its fast-growing cousin, IP Captioned Telephone Service.
This service, approved by the FCC in 2007, lets a deaf person who has the ability to speak communicate with a hearing person through a trained operator. The operator repeats aloud what the hearing person has said, and speech recognition software transcribes it into text for the deaf person to read.
With today's mobile apps and features like signed video voice mail messages, there is more freedom. Since the companies are all paid the same per minute, they compete on customer service and available technology.
“It's all to deliver on the promise that the deaf should be able to communicate with whomever, whenever,” Kershisnik said.
Many hearing people don't know these services exist, and sometimes get confused when they are the recipient of a call from a deaf person, voiced through an interpreter, said Deb Graegin, manager of the ZVRS call center. She urged businesses and service providers not to hang up if they get a call through a relay service from a deaf person.
For the deaf person on the other end of the call, the technology is not just a fun app for their phone.
“It's 'changing-lives' technology,” Graegin said. Her husband is deaf, and when they dated years ago, their phone conversations happened over a TTY machine — not especially romantic, she said.
Vickie Doherty, manager of the Sorenson call center, as a child would have to run next door to a neighbor's house to make calls for her deaf parents. Now, she can talk on the videophone with her mother.
“It's just so amazing that, finally, people who communicate using sign language have the ability to reach out in their own language and communicate,” Doherty said.
Deaf Omahans agreed the technology has changed their lives, connecting them socially and in the workplace. Now, they want hearing people to know about these services.
Vicki Steinhauer-Campbell, who is deaf, works for the state in Omaha and Lincoln helping deaf people train for and find work. She said the technology makes more jobs accessible to deaf people, and wishes it were invented back when she was in college at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., which serves deaf students.
“I would have been able to contact employers to find a job, network with people, and have access to other deaf communities,” she said in an interview over VRS on her video phone.
Patti Reitz thinks about how far deaf people have come in being accepted in schools and the workplace, thanks to technology and ADA rules. Reitz, 71, became deaf when she was 10, after a fall that left her in a coma. With no services for deaf students in her Ogallala school, she had to learn to read lips and endure taunts from other children. Even at family gatherings, she said in an email interview, her mother left her out of conversations, saying she would fill her in later on what people had been talking about.
Reitz had a career as a teacher at the Nebraska School for the Deaf and Burke High School, but still had to depend on her children to make phone calls for her.
“It has changed my life dramatically,” she said. “I thank God every day for this wonderful technology that allows me to communicate just like you.”
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