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Free communication relay

January 17, 2009
By Lauren LeFebvre

As you know, if you've read my previous columns, there is a huge variety of adaptive equipment that helps people with disabilities gain independence by depending less on others. If you think about it, you lose a lot of your privacy by having to ask others to drive you places, count your money, balance your bank account, make phone calls for you and on and on. Adaptive devices can be expensive, which is a drawback for many people who need them.

Money. Why does that always have to enter into the picture? Well, I'm here to tell you that there is a service for people who are deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind or who have a speaking disability. It's the New York Relay Service, and it's free. The Relay Service can be used by everyone who has one of the aforementioned disabilities or by someone who needs to contact a person with such a disability by phone.

This service is a mystery to a good portion of the general public and it was to me until I had to learn about it by the seat of my pants. I'm going to walk you through this from my perspective as someone who can hear, and has both called and received calls from a deaf person.

The most difficult thing is the first step. Why is it difficult? Because to make a relay call you dial 7-1-1. There is no 1-800, no 891, just 7-1-1. Miracle of miracles, someone answers when you just dial three numbers. Now you're on easy street because the operator leads you through everything. Every time I call, they ask, "Have you ever made a relay call before?" Now don't be Joe Cool and say yes if you've never done this before. Next, the operator asks you what number you are calling. Obviously, you should know this because the operator won't. The operator will dial the number and you will hear it ringing. My experience has only been with a person who is deaf but can speak clearly, so keep that in mind. Anyway, the person I am calling answers by saying "Hello, go ahead," and then they place their phone receiver on a device called a TTY (text-telephone device). By the way, the service is free, the TTY is not.

As I respond, the operator is typing what I'm saying and the typed message appears on a screen on the TTY. Each time I finish speaking, I say "go ahead." This signals the deaf person I am calling to pick up their receiver and respond to me. Remember, I can hear, he can't. When he's done speaking he says "go ahead" and puts his receiver back on the TTY to read my response. You're following me, right? When the conversation is completely over, each of us says "S.K., S.K." and then hang up. I'm guessing that it means something like "10-4, over and out, Good Buddy."

Receiving a call from a TTY user is much the same except for the fact that they initiate the call by dialing 7-1-1 and your phone rings. Again, the operator will lead you through the process again.

There is one thing I have noticed about TTY calls that is not so good and not so easy. Agencies that you would assume should have some familiarity with them and I dare say, are required by law to do so, do not. The law is very clear here and I'll spell it out for you in laymen terms. TTY users should be able to directly call the police or fire department and not go through the 7-1-1 Relay Service. Think about it. Does adding a step by calling through a third party seem prudent to you in an emergency? The hearing population does not have to do that so why should the deaf population. Are our local emergency services prepared to do so? I know the answer. Do you?



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