Saturday, March 04, 2006

Interview with

Many thanks to Bob Sullivan of - he has written an brilliant article on 'Net Video Leaves the Deaf Behind'. It was a great honor to be interviewed for my input on his article. I hope there will be more articles similar to this on other websites such as AOL, CNN, and BBC.

Many of you may not know that this is my second interview on a national media outlet. Here's a 'copy and paste' of my first interview by Wall Street Journal Online ( four years ago.

Deaf Adopt Text-Messaging As a Means to Communicate


Before he started using wireless-messaging services, Sonny Wasilowski, who is deaf, felt like he was tethered to his computer -- constantly booting up to check and re-check his e-mail to keep up with friends and family. Even routine conversations, such as making plans to meet friends at a bar or getting picked up at the airport, were frustratingly time consuming.

Now, the 21-year-old Gallaudet University student says his two-way pager has helped him cut the cord; so much so that he almost never puts it down. One exception: "My fiancee does not allow me to use it at all while driving."

Wireless paging has become nearly as ubiquitous for the roughly 30 million people with hearing loss in the U.S. as cellphones are for the hearing population, its adherents say. Pagers, from such companies as Research in Motion Ltd. and T-Mobile, and text-messaging services via cellphone allow the deaf to communicate with family, friends and co-workers in the same fashion as their hearing counterparts.

Demand for text-messaging services among the deaf is soaring as the technology revolutionizes the way the hard of hearing communicate. Their enthusiasm also comes at the same time when demand for wireless data services in the general population is weak, and ever-lower prices can be a big draw for the deaf. But the services still aren't cheap and some deaf users would like to see greater coordination with emergency and other assistive-listening devices as teletypewriter phones (TTY).

About three years ago, pagers became widely available at a relatively low cost, and the tide had turned, says Judy Harkins, director of the technology access program at Gallaudet. "Pagers filled a need for mobile communication and the deaf community became hooked," she says.

At Gallaudet, the nation's only liberal-arts university for the deaf, a wireless pager is a must. Thumbs fly in classrooms as students send flurries of messages across campus, observers say. "If you don't have a pager, you're considered behind in the culture," Mr. Wasilowski says.

The deaf have long had access to TTY phones, which haven't translated very well to the wireless world. Newer cellphones don't always have the proper adapters to hook into a TTY phone, and digital cellphone service interferes with hearing aids. Moreover, spotty cellphone service -- an annoyance even for people with good hearing -- often garbles sound.

Wireless pagers, on the other hand, free a hard-of-hearing person from the bulky equipment that accompanies a TTY phone and the cords connecting them. Users of pagers from companies that cater to the deaf, such as Wynd Communications, a unit of GoAmerica Inc., can send text messages through a relay operator to someone on the phone or who is using a TTY.

Using the pager alone delivers greater independence; when talking on a text telephone, both parties must wait for a relay operator to tell the other party what the deaf person is saying, and then key in replies.

"It's like walking around with a text telephone," says Andy Imperato, president of the American Association for People with Disabilities, about pagers, which have "opened up avenues of instant communication."

Louis Schwarz, who is deaf, is a certified financial planner in Silver Spring, Md. When he started his business in 1983, Mr. Schwarz says he worked hard to educate financial institutions about how to use the relay-telephone service, which was slow and cumbersome.


Many deaf people choose to buy wireless services through companies that cater exclusively to the hearing impaired because they offer better deals for people who send lots of data. Here's how some services stack up:

WyndTell Wynd Communications, a unit of GoAmerica Inc., Hackensack, N.J. www.wynd.com1 * $39.95 a month for unlimited characters sent or received each month, unlimited e-mail * RIM 850 pager free ($399 retail value) with one-year contract

DeafWireless Subsidiary of Boundless Depot, Las Vegas www.deafwireless.com2 * Standard plan: $19.95 a month for 150,000 characters; 10 cents for every 100 characters over the limit * Power plan: $39.99 a month for unlimited use * RIM 850 pager free with two-year contract, or $69.95 with one-year contract

Now, Mr. Schwarz uses a two-way pager called SideKick through wireless operator T-Mobile. His service includes unlimited Web browsing, instant messaging, e-mail and phone services. The device also doubles as a digital camera.

"It keeps me in touch with my clients at all times and they feel more assured knowing that I'm doing services for them," Mr. Schwarz says.

To be sure, the devices don't always meet all their needs. Many users rely on their pagers to relay information in emergency situations, but users still can't send text messages to 911 emergency services.

And though pagers remove operators from the equation, conversations still don't have the ease or immediacy of discussions between hearing people, says Jim House, director of member services and public relations for Telecommunications for the Deaf Inc., in Silver Spring, Md., a group that promotes distribution of technology for the deaf. "It is not real-time, meaning you have to wait for a response, not like the back-and-forth banter hearing people enjoy on the phone," Mr. House says.

The cost also can be prohibitively expensive. Mr. Wasilowski says many of his friends have stopped heavily using their pagers as they move out of college and into the work force.

But many employers of those with hearing loss find they're an easy way to make the workplace accessible. "Pagers serve as the functional equivalent of what a hearing person needs to access messages when away from the office," says Daniel Luis, president and chief operating officer of GoAmerica, adding that hundreds of companies and the federal government have tapped them for this purpose.

Although the deaf population remains a niche market, some companies are catching on to the potential it could deliver as the technology continues to spread. As a whole, the disabled community has $175 billion in discretionary spending and $1 trillion in income, according to management-consulting firm Booz, Allen & Hamilton in Washington.

Verizon Wireless, for example, made its network and handsets TTY compatible, but also understands that text-messaging is a compelling product for the deaf, says spokesman Brian Wood. Although the company doesn't know how many customers using its services are hard of hearing, Verizon plans to make improvements sometime next year to its customer-service call centers so that it can better serve the needs of its deaf customers.

Also still to come are some standards and etiquette for using the pagers -- not too far from what's needed for cellphones, observers say. Tom Walsh, a marketing manager for Advanced Bionics in Sylmar, Calif., which makes cochlear implants for the deaf, reported watching attendees at a recent conference reaching into their bags and pockets to grab buzzing pagers, and punching back replies during seminars.

But restricting their use might be a tough sell at Gallaudet.

"They could try, but I don't think they will," Mr. Wasilowski said, laughing at the prospect of a university policy to curtail pager use during classes. "It would cause chaos."

Write to Stacy Forster at stacy.forster@wsj.com3

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