Deaf people don't usually carry cell phones, but they haven't been shut out of the communications revolution. Over the last three years, their lives have been transformed by two-way pagers.
The pagers don't just facilitate conversations between those who can't hear very well. These gizmos make it easy for anybody who has e-mail or even a stand
ard phone to communicate with the deaf.
People who are hard of hearing often use devices based on the WyndTell system. It's got a tiny keyboard that lets users type fairly quickly with their thumbs. A message can be e-mailed, faxed or sent to a text telephone, or TTY device, a standard tool for the deaf that allows text messages to be sent over telephone lines.
The pager, supported by Wynd Communications, is expensive, but it's enormously popular in the deaf community because it helps break down communication barriers.
This powerful technology will become increasingly important for our society. Nearly 10% of Americans have some sort of difficulty hearing, and that number is expected to climb significantly as the first generation to grow up listening to amplified music over their portable stereos continues aging.
Even today, the devices have redefined what it means to be hard of hearing. "That pager technology is really having a significant effect on deaf culture," said Judy Harkins, professor of communications studies at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the nation's best-known school for the deaf. "It seems like everybody who can afford one has one. They're very, very commonplace. And very much loved."
Robert R. Davila, chief executive of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute for Technology, said the devices are indispensable. "I used to lug around bulky TTY equipment so that I could use public telephones away from home." Now, "I can travel independently and remain in contact with my office or loved ones, and seek and get information without the need to resort to third-party assistance."
Davila, who is deaf, wrote to me through his WyndTell, which he said has changed his life.
It's an incredibly flexible device. For instance, users can send e-mail to a telephone number and if somebody picks up the line, an electronic voice will say the message aloud using a voice similar to the computer in the movie "WarGames."
"Years ago, when I was out of town on business, my wife would sometimes drive to the airport to pick me up at the appointed hour not knowing that my flight had been grounded in another city for hours," Davila said. "With my WyndTell, I can send a phone message to her TTY, send a fax to our home or send her e-mail via WyndTell or our home computer. It is really amazing."
James Tropp, who has used a WyndTell and works for the New Mexico School for the Deaf in Santa Fe, acknowledges the difficulties of typing on the pager's tiny keyboard. The keys aren't much bigger than a pencil point, so even a skilled typist can't bang out text very quickly.
Even so, users are thrilled at the opportunities offered by the devices. "Wireless pagers are our best thing ever," he said. "We are grateful that we're able to have equal access to any type of communication."
Right now, however, tools such as WyndTell are so expensive that many people can't afford them. The devices range from about $100 to $300, and the bare-bones service plans start at about $15 a month. Flat-rate plans run at about $50 a month. Many in the deaf community make do with standard text pagers, which can be much cheaper, though they lack features like TTY communication.
Tropp said his friends eagerly await the day when wireless videoconferencing equipment will let people who are hard of hearing communicate via sign language. Someday, he suggested, engineers will develop devices that will speak aloud what deaf people type, and translate the sounds that people utter into words the deaf can read. "Anything is possible."
Even when big telecommunication companies ignore a significant segment of the population. The next-generation digital cell phones don't usually work with hearing aids and TTY, and the older analog phone networks will eventually be shut down. The deaf community started migrating to pagers in part as a reaction to that failure by the cell phone industry.
That's yet another illustration that poorly implemented technology can isolate us. Fortunately, in this case, technology also offers a solution.
Dave Wilson is The Times' personal technology columnist.