TTY to Videophones: A Retrospective


By Lorna Irwin, Idaho Hands & Voices

I’m near the end of my third decade raising a deaf kid.

To be sure, she’s done most of the raising for herself in recent years, but once a mother, always a mother. It’s been rewarding for me to continue to be in contact with families beginning this journey, and I often find myself reflecting on how much some things have changed (and how much others have not!) 

...Conversations between the two of us in the past were not entirely satisfactory.  I felt strange talking to my own daughter through an interpreter.  Oh, it’s nice to be able to call her from a cell phone and let her know I’ve arrived at the airport, or was running late on the freeway, but for our longer conversations I decided I wanted a direct connection. So, I bought a videophone myself...

When we found out early in 1982 that our 15 month old daughter Mavis was deaf, we felt very fortunate that we were able to confirm her hearing loss and get a rough idea of its severity by driving six hours to the nearest ABR in a neighboring state. The audiologist got only a partial response in one ear at the very highest decibel level tested; an indication that we had a lot to learn and much to do in the months and years that lay ahead.

At the very beginning, technology had provided us with an answer that would have been difficult to get ten years earlier in a child as young as Mavis. In fact, it would someday be possible to screen all infants for hearing loss, just as they were screened for certain metabolic disorders.  What a great idea! Mavis had no risk factors for hearing loss, so only her parents’ worries led to her hearing being tested as early as it had. How wonderful it would have been to have known that we had a deaf child soon after she was born—as it was, we were playing a frantic game of catch-up when it came to communication and language development.

We soon found out that there were great technological toys that would eventually make her life as a deaf person easier. Some worked better than others. The only way to give her access to sound was a hearing aid (her first was a body-style aid with a box worn in a carrier over her clothes with wires that ran to two clunky receivers attached to earmolds) which didn’t do much more than let her know that someone was talking, provided there wasn’t much background noise.  

Visual means of communication proved a good fit for our situation, and we realized early that written language would provide a bridge that would allow her to communicate with most hearing people and access information about the world. We bought a closed-caption decoder (a large box sold separately and costing nearly as much as the television to which it was attached) and a TTY before she even started to learn to read. Not every television program was captioned, since it was up to the producers to do so. The only telephone relay was a “message center” funded by a non-profit that would pass on messages left by deaf callers. Hours were limited, and the group always seemed to be running out of money.

Prior to relay, there was also no way to call 911 unless the dispatcher had a TTY and knew how to use it.  Neither was the case the day that I hired a babysitter in order to enjoy a little “me” time.  No worries, the kids are home with a sitter, right? The sitter came down with a sudden case of flu, went to the bathroom, threw up and fainted.  Mavis, then ten years old, checked her for pulse and respiration and tried to call the hospital TTY. She neglected to press the space bar to signal an incoming TTY call, so it didn’t work. She then dragged her muddy seven-year-old brother into the house, held the phone to his ear, and coached/signed him through telling the hospital what was going on. The message didn’t come through that clearly; she got Dad on a bicycle rather than the paramedics in an ambulance, but the sitter survived.

Our computer was an IBM PC Jr with 250K of memory, and there was no internet. We got our first VCR from a relative when Mavis was a toddler. It was the size of a small suitcase and came with a camera that attached to the VCR with a cable and allowed us to film home movies anywhere we were willing to haul the heavy thing. I kept lots of rolls of film on hand and made frequent runs to the one hour photo processor in order to paste up “experience books” to help Mavis learn vocabulary. I look back on those days and wish I could send a computer, printer, digital camera and camcorder back in time to my younger self—what great use I could have made of them!

As Mavis grew older, more and more television programs were captioned, and pressure started building for TTY relay services.  Idaho was one of the last states to set up a relay system after the ADA made it a mandate. Much to my relief, relay came just in time for Mavis’s teenage years. She started mainstreaming for some of her high school classes and making friends with hearing kids, engaging in occasional lengthy chats by relay.  

By now we had dial-up internet services, and both Mavis and her hearing brothers started to use email and instant messaging as substitutes for the telephone.  When she left home for college, email became our main mode of distance communication.  We also engaged in internet chats, finding these to be not only cheaper than long-distance calls, but faster, since we could “leap-frog” conversations rather than having to take turns. The TTY I’d purchased for her went nearly unused, since it was now possible to access text relay services on the internet, and it was no longer necessary to even have a phone or a phone line.

Text relay services had a couple of serious drawbacks. Frequently Mavis would call businesses and have them hang up on her. They were also slow, and navigating phone menus was a nightmare. Determined to do things for herself, she still would call home once or twice a year to request that I put through a call for her. She didn’t always have the two or three hours it would take!  Moving presented additional challenges, since she wouldn’t have internet services immediately and would have to drive to multiple offices in order to do move-related errands. I will confess that I once committed telephone fraud in order to expedite a utility hook-up for her when the company refused to talk to anyone except the customer despite my explanation.

Why this trip down memory lane?  It started with our latest technological toy, the videophone.  Mavis got hers first—in fact; she got two, one at home and one at work. The equipment and set-up was free, even though a “special cases” technician was needed to get around the firewall at her place of work. Her only cost is premium high-speed internet. Video relay is much faster than text relay, because it places a sign language interpreter between the deaf and hearing users, and no one has to type. They also seem to have come up with a greeting that doesn’t cause the hearing person receiving a relay call for the first time to mistake it for a prank and hang up. 

Conversations between the two of us in the past were not entirely satisfactory. I felt strange talking to my own daughter through an interpreter. Oh, it’s nice to be able to call her from a cell phone and let her know I’ve arrived at the airport, or was running late on the freeway, but for our longer conversations I decided I wanted a direct connection. So, I bought a videophone myself.  It cost me about $400-500 for the phone, the new router with extra ports, and the Geek Squad agent who finally figured out how to get it to work, but it was worth every penny!  (My advice to parents is to get your videophone with the subsidy available through the telecommunications tax while your kids are still at home!) 

Suddenly, I was getting calls from my daughter several times a week, sometimes just to chat. 

Mavis bought a smaller older house a couple of years ago, which has presented all of the challenges that older houses usually do. Last summer the roof leaked so much that the ceiling in the hallway fell down–it was clearly time for a new roof!  Mavis was thrilled to handle the whole awful mess herself by videophone, getting bids from three contractors, negotiating price, etc. Afterwards, she told me that for the first time in her life she felt truly independent and able to navigate the phone system as easily as a hearing person. As for 911, she can now dial it directly, and the videophone service will connect her with her local dispatcher and even has her address on file so they can tell emergency services where to go if for some reason Mavis can’t communicate.

I’m eagerly awaiting the next new thing. ~

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