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Deaf LOC Employees Get Videophones

Until a few months ago, one quick phone call meant a slow, cumbersome process for Fred Pickering.

As a deaf technology specialist at the Library of Congress, he couldn’t just pick up the phone and ask a colleague a question. He had to visit in person, send an e-mail or begin the frustratingly slow process of typing out the conversation for a third party to read over the phone.

But in the fall, the Library installed videophones for its 17 deaf employees. Now, Pickering can use his first language when he makes a call: American Sign Language.

“It’s working out. Definitely,” Pickering said in an interview using the videophone and its interpreter. “It’s probably better than anything we’ve ever had.”

The Library is one of few federal agencies to install the phones throughout its work force, giving every deaf employee his or her own equipment. Now, those employees can call anyone, hearing or deaf, with almost the same speed as a phone.

Here’s how it works: The employee calls into the service and is put in touch — on a video monitor — with an interpreter. The interpreter calls the desired number and then proceeds to translate the deaf person’s signs for the person on the phone, and vice versa. If both the caller and the receiver are deaf, then the two sign to each other on real-time video.

The technology is popular in the deaf community, said Judy Harkins, a professor of communication studies at Gallaudet University, the nation’s foremost college for the deaf.

“All of the text forms of relay service take a lot longer for a call. The voice party experiences delays while typing occurs,” said Harkins, who is not deaf, in an e-mail. “For people who communicate in ASL, video relay services provide natural pacing, easy ability to interrupt in a normal way, and not having to type — just as hearing people do when talking on the phone.”

The interview with Pickering provided a good example. The conversation was fluid. The interpreter switched mid-sentence if Pickering did, relayed “hmms” and “ums,” and so quickly translated speech to Pickering that there was virtually no time lag.

The quality of video is better than most Web cams, PIckering said, and he uses it several times a day to call deaf colleagues. He calls his hearing peers less often — perhaps once a day.

“If I’m just curious on how something works, I’m able to just call them and ask them,” he said, adding that e-mail sometimes isn’t appropriate. “Sometimes when you do correspondence through e-mail, there’s a misunderstanding.”

Sorenson Communications provides the equipment free of charge, and a federal fund pays the company for the minutes used. The Library has worked for about a year to bring the system to the agency, testing out its security and compatibility with the computer system, said James Graber, the LOC chief technology assistant.

The Library is ahead of the curve on accepting the videophone agency-wide: The Sorenson Video Relay Service has only been available since 2003, and it is still unknown by many agencies, said spokeswoman Ann Bardsley.

But it is an uphill battle: Harkins and others say that it can be difficult for deaf employees to navigate their company’s hierarchy in order to get permission to install a videophone. Employers, especially government agencies, worry about whether the equipment could invite hackers or overload the network. The company or agency has to take an extra step to make it possible.

“Some employers have been hesitant to deploy installation just because they have to go through the firewall issue,” Bardsley admitted. But, “Once employers have installed it, they’re so thrilled by how much productivity increases.”

Officials at the Library and Gallaudet said there have been no major problems with security or usage. Indeed, one of the company’s call centers is located on the Gallaudet campus.

The invention of the telephone created an obvious barrier for deaf people finding jobs, notes Eric Eldritch, the LOC access programs manager. E-mail and the Text Telephone service, where a deaf person can type out his or her words for a third party to read aloud, was a big improvement, he said.

But the Library has been working for about five years to install something more convenient, he said. The agency’s first idea was to use a Web camera with separate online software. That proved insecure and impractical.

But the Sorenson version seems like the solution. Many deaf people use the system in their homes, and they are excited to get the equipment at work, Harkins said.

“It’s more comparable to a hearing person having messaging AND a phone,” she said in her e-mail. “You really need both to do business.”

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