Cell phones, computers and email – it seems like everyone is using them today. Yes, everyone. People who are deaf are using computers and small handheld Short Messaging Services (SMS) devices to bridge communication gaps and expand their opportunities.
Several years ago the first handheld instant messaging device called the WyndTel Communicator was introduced to the market for people who are deaf. The WyndTel offered the possibility to have text message communications (also called Short messaging Services or SMS) between users with almost cell-phone-like convenience. The explosion in communication was on. Almost overnight people who were deaf, and lived in large metro areas with coverage for the device, began reaching for their WyndTel communication devices as regularly as people with normal hearing were reaching for their cell phones. Manufacturers took notice. Soon Motorola, T-Mobile and others introduced handheld SMS devices. In addition, many of the new, more advanced cell phones now offer text messaging capabilities.
Diane Leonard, a deaf professional who works in St. Cloud, uses a T-Mobile Sidekick device. Says Leonard, “it is very helpful for contacting friends or family members.” I can contact people and tell them “what time I will get home or arrive to my friend’s late, get directions if I get lost, get quicker responses from my TTY answering machine, compare prices at different stores, and much more.” In other words, she uses her Sidekick just like others use cell phones.
But that’s not all! With the popularity of the SMS devices growing, manufacturers began to add features much like we find in many of the newer cell phones. The Sidekick device, for example, can be used to play games, check email, browse the World Wide Web and read the latest news and weather. In addition, the device can tell you what time it is, take photos, keep your calendar and addresses organized and yes, it works as a cell phone too.
One feature that Leonard especially likes is the ability to tap into the internet relay services of either IP Relay or Sprint. Wherever her Sidekick will work, she can contact anyone who has a line or cell phone and with the help of the relay service, communicate! For people who are deaf or have severe hearing or speech limitations, this means they have the safety and security of knowing that in an emergency, help is just a few key strokes away. Cheryl Blue, another deaf professional who works in Northern Minnesota, says she has AAA service and in an emergency she can contact them with her SMS device using the Minnesota Relay Service.
The SMS units are not without disadvantages though. In many areas, even a few miles outside large metro areas, there is no coverage. Even some areas that offer cellular phone coverage do not have coverage for text message users. Cheryl Blue notes that except for the area along highway 53 from Duluth to Virginia, most of her region does not offer SMS service. This is unfortunate since everyday communication and emergencies do not tend to confine themselves to any geographical boundaries. Surprisingly, this situation is different in most of Europe and even far away places like Australia where coverage is much broader, reaching to even the most remote areas.
Blue did note however that the device allows her to keep in touch with friends and family when she travels. During her recent experience with a hurricane in Florida, she was able to keep in touch with family regarding her safety. Like Leonard she feels the benefits of the device far exceed any limitations, but she looks forward to the day when she will be able to use the device anywhere, anytime.
With the popularity of the devices and the potential advantages they offer to people who travel on business or to professionals who just want to keep in touch, the day of world-wide coverage cannot be too far into the future. For people who are deaf or have speech limitations, access to communication means access to the world of opportunities.