Communication at a Distance

By Lorna Irwin

Sooner or later, a kid has to be able to contact classmates to get homework assignments, chat with friends, say hello to distant relatives and order out for pizza. It can be sooner than you may think, with the wide array of communication devices and services now available. A little parental assistance can go a long way toward establishing independence in this area. Parents can not only provide equipment that works with their child's type of hearing loss and whatever amplification the child already wears; they can also set up situations which encourage phone use and stand by to aid the learning process.

This is a very big subject! Rather than attempt to cover it comprehensively, this article presents a general overview, incorporating some tips we've gathered from families.

Some children with mild hearing loss or good gain from hearing aids or a cochlear implant may be able to use an "off the shelf" telephone, if it has certain features. One mother of daughters who are both hard of hearing finds that a phone with a handset with volume control is enough. Another mother reports that her son with a cochlear implant does well with a speaker phone-"It's just like having someone in the room talking to him." A speaker phone could also be used for a child who is still learning to listen to a phone, since a parent could mouth, cue or sign what is being said to fill in any gaps in understanding. Another feature of standard phones is a magnet which can activate the telecoil on hearing aids (that's what the "T" switch is for) to give better sound quality to a hearing-aid user. It is also possible to purchase amplified telephones specifically for people with hearing loss.

Cell phones are another matter. Most aren't designed to be used with hearing aids. Cell phones lack the capacity to activate the telecoil and many of them interfere with hearing aids. What kind of results you get with a cell phone depends on the make of the phone, the phone service, and the hearing aid as well as your child's type of hearing loss. There are a seemingly endless number of combinations of these elements possible, and the technology is constantly changing. Your best bet is to do what research you can (your audiologist may be able to help), but in the end, nothing beats taking the child to the dealer and asking to try out various cell phones in the showroom by actually "reaching out to touch someone" to see which one actually gives the best sound quality.

Be aware that casual conversations may be far different "listening arenas" than needing to get precise information containing numbers or driving directions. In that case, other means of communication may be preferable. It's good to do some exploring and help your child be aware of strengths and weaknesses of the choices available. Discussing things with an IRS auditor may call for a different strategy then chatting with Aunt Sally.

The venerable TTY or TDD is the oldest answer to the problem of communicating over the phone lines. It allows a deaf or hard or hearing user to type his half of the conversation and read the other half-provided another or Relay Operator is on the other end of the line. Many different relay services are now possible. State commissions for the deaf/hard of hearing are often excellent sources of current information on the combination of services that would fit your child just right.

Using a TTY with or without a relay service means typing and reading. Your child need not be adept at either before experiencing TTY use, if a helper can be nearby to check spelling/reading and the other caller is patient. One family has the grandparents use their unlimited free cell phone minutes on weekends to call using a relay service. The conversation doesn't go much beyond greetings, but it exposes both child and grandparents to relay use, and lets them say "I love you." Years ago, I gained a valuable perspective on TTY use by very young children when I realized that one of my daughter's preschool classmates was already (at age four) answering the phone for her Deaf family. When she saw the phone light flash, she'd go put the receiver on the TTY, type her own name and "GA", then read the name of the person requested by the caller and go alert them to their incoming call. My hearing kids didn't do as well!

An exciting new development for parents of signing children is video relay, which allows conversations to be held with anyone via a sign language interpreter. Direct webcam communication is also an option, giving kids a chance to interact with deaf friends and adults at a distance. Conversations can happen much faster than by typing, and non-verbal affect and tone of voice can be conveyed, lessening chances for misunderstandings. Another very new service, not yet available in all areas, is captioned telephone relay. This is a variation of relay service in which the deaf or hard of hearing user speaks, but reads captions generated by the operator re-voicing the incoming message while at the same time listening to the other party. Voice-to-text technology is still not 100% accurate, and must be "trained" to recognize certain voices, but in the future may open up still more ways to communicate.

Computers, text messaging services and the internet have opened a vast array of communication choices to deaf and hearing people alike. I find it astounding that my deaf daughter and hearing son have equally active on-line lives. They e-mail, instant message, participate in forums, keep on-line journals and web pages. Because hearing teens and young adults are comfortable with these new technologies, deaf and hard of hearing youngsters have access to a much larger pool of potential friends. Used with caution and under parental guidelines, the internet can be a wonderful place to meet deaf and hearing kids with similar interests, and is a great way to hone literacy skills. It has other uses as well. My daughter, now working in her first job; instant messages with her boss as an alternative to hand-written notes, thus communicating "long distance" across the 30 feet between their desks!

Many states have loan equipment for families to try out. Idaho Hands & Voices, for example, has both amplified telephones and TTY's. Call your Parent Consultant or the Idaho Sound Beginnings office (1-800-433-1323.) collaborates with Hands & Voices

Hands & Voices is entering into a collaborative relationship with the Deaf Education web site at , a project of the Association of College Educators Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing (ACE-D/HH.) Teachers and prospective teachers of children who are deaf and hard of hearing can use this site to exchange ideas with other teachers (many are isolated in small programs), find job openings, and communicate with parents and others who are involved in deaf and hard of hearing children's lives. Hands & Voices families are invited to participate in several ways:

  • Nominate outstanding teachers you know to become "Join Together Master Teachers." This is a way to recognize excellent teachers, who will be invited to participate in this project and share their talents with others. Follow the links to "Grant Activities" and then to "Master." The "Join Together" project is designed to establish a "Virtual Professional Development School" for PK-12 deaf education which will link the theories and resources of the nation's deaf education teacher preparation programs with the proven practices and learning opportunities of the nation's most innovative and effective teachers.
  • Become a "Cyber Mentor" for students of deaf education, and share the parental perspective with the next generation of teachers. Follow the links to "Collaboration" and then to "Cyber Mentors." After registering as a mentor, you will exchange e-mails with a student for a semester at a time, as students become available.
  • Get involved with nationwide teams that are working to enhance teaching and learning.
  • Become registered users of the Deaf Education web site and to encourage school systems to use the web site to post job openings, search the resumes of deaf education professionals seeking positions, post calendar events, use the DeafWeb search engine, and become informed of existing and emerging collaborative opportunities, technologies and resources.
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