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Bell Atlantic Seeks Simpler System for the Hearing-Impaired

In an effort to improve telecommunications access for the deaf and hard of hearing, Bell Atlantic plans to simplify its numbering system for call centers that serve these consumers.

The Baby Bell, which serves 13 states on the Eastern Seaboard, is the first local phone company to take advantage of a block of numbers set aside by the Federal Communications Commission in 1997 for use by the deaf and hard of hearing.

Bell Atlantic hopes to use the 711 prefix to connect these customers with what are known as telecommunications relay centers in each of the states it serves.

The centers allow users to make calls by dialing a toll-free number for the center closest to them and then typing in the phone number of the party they want to reach. Callers type in their message using a special phone, and the text travels over the phone network and appears on a computer screen in front of an operator at the relay center, who reads the message to the party being called.

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The system’s current design makes it difficult for those with hearing disabilities to know the toll-free number of the nearest call center when they are traveling, said Karen Peltz Strauss, legal counsel for telecommunications policy at the National Assn. of the Deaf. There are about 100 toll-free numbers for relay centers across the U.S.

The current system also requires the deaf and hard of hearing to dial 21 numbers for a long-distance call, compared with 13 numbers for the same call with the 711 plan.

“This is a measure of convenience for the deaf and hard of hearing community,” said Harry Mitchell, Bell Atlantic’s director of media relations. “We’re hoping other telecommunications companies will pick up the ball and follow our lead.”

Pacific Bell and GTE officials were unavailable to comment on any plans they may have for 711 service.

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To put its 711 plan in action, Bell Atlantic must receive approval from state regulators who operate the telecommunications centers by contracting out their phone services with one of the Big Three long-distance companies--AT&T;, MCI and Sprint.

The plan would require sophisticated changes to the way the carrier’s network routes calls to these centers, Mitchell said, adding that the company doesn’t expect to pass on to its customers the costs of implementing the service.

Bell Atlantic hopes to have the service in place within a year in its Mid-Atlantic region, including Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey.

The deaf community has lobbied long and hard for a more convenient way to communicate over the phone, Strauss said.

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“This is something we’ve been lobbying for for quite some time,” Strauss said. “Telephone access is in its infancy for people who are deaf and hard of hearing.”

Indeed, it’s only been in the last two decades that the approximately 28 million Americans with hearing disabilities have had access to systems that help them better communicate over the phone. When telecommunications relay centers were created in the early 1980s, it was only on a voluntary basis.

It wasn’t until 1990, when the Americans With Disabilities Act was signed into law, that federal regulators required that the centers be put in place. Even so, the regulations mandating the centers didn’t take effect until 1993.

The FCC is looking into ways it could use a three-digit prefix similar to 711 to provide the deaf and hard of hearing with a choice of long-distance carriers before they are connected with a call center.

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Times staff writer Jennifer Oldham can be reached via e-mail at jennifer.oldham@latimes.com.


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