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Deaf Community:  Telecommunications

Todd English


Telecommunications for the Deaf


Since the invention of the telephone more than 100 years ago scientists and engineers alike have been looking for ways for the deaf to communicate. Before the advent of the modern computer and the digital age, the only way the deaf had to communicate personally over a distance was by using a Teletype machine (TTY). There were many problems that plagued the first Teletype machines and they were also very expensive. Many years after the invention of the TTY, another system came into existence: the relay services which allowed the deaf community to communicate with the hearing community. The 21st century has brought the deaf community many other methods of communication, from e-mail to cell phones that send and receive text.

The first TTY’s for telephone communications were put to practical use for the deaf in 1964 when, “Robert H. Wietbrecht developed the acoustic coupler” for transmitting and receiving information from the TTY over normal telephone lines (Jensema, 1994).  It would take another four years before TTY communications were used in the deaf community, but at that time only 25 were in use. Another problem that plagued early TTY’s was that they were a heavy mechanical device which was not portable. As time went on the TTY’s became electronic devices and became known as Telecommunication Device for the Deaf (TDD).  While the TDD’s were still very expensive, the price has continued to decrease as the price for electronics has continued to decrease.  

The TDD has a small keyboard that the person types on.  Above the keyboard is a small LCD screen that shows what the individual is typing. On the other end of the phone line the other TDD is displaying on the small LCD screen what that person is typing.  Nowadays, the TDD’s range from laptop computer size to sizes smaller than a laptop computer and can be taken with the individual when they leave their home or business.  Prices range from $200 to $600. With some models the individual places the phone receiver directly on the TDD; with others the individual plugs the unit directly into the telephone jack, or the date jack on the cell phone if it is a portable TDD.

The TDD/TTY was a great way for the deaf to communicate with the deaf, but it didn’t allow the deaf to communicate with the hearing unless the hearing had a TDD/TTY device. This is why relay services were created.  It allowed the deaf to communicate with the hearing and vice versa. The relay service acts as a middleman between the deaf and the hearing.  The deaf subscriber types on their TDD/TTY device which transmits to a relay service that also has a TDD/TYY device. The relay service operator then verbally relays the message to the hearing individual over the phone line. The opposite is true if the hearing individual wants to communicate with a deaf individual: the relay service types in the verbal message from the hearing person and transmits it to the deaf individual.

The relay service was developed in the early 1970’s, but at that time “Individuals could call in and leave a voice message that the answering service relayed by TDD to a deaf subscriber and vice versa” (Jensema, 1994). It wasn’t until 1993 when the Americans with Disabilities Act went into effect that the relay service became readily available to the deaf community and the general public alike.  There is one downfall with the relay service: the individuals who are communicating cannot have a private phone conversation because of the relay service operator who is relaying the messages back and forth.

Other current methods that allow the deaf to communicate with deaf or hearing individuals is e-mail, text messaging cell phones, video telephones, instant messaging and fax machines.  In 1989, a couple in Britain was working on a system that would transmit sign language from an individual signing in front of a small camera to a telephone line and display what that person was signing on a small television screen.  Nowadays that can be done by using a small camera connected to a personal computer that transmits those images over the internet to someone whom that individual wants to communicate with.

            With all of the new technology available today, the gap that separates the deaf community from the hearing community has just about disappeared.  To find out how the deaf community was using the available communication methods, a survey was conducted in 2002. The survey reported, “A lot of people said they used e-mail for the kinds of conversations they once conducted via TTY or relay” (Bowe, 2002).




Jensema, Carl J. (1994). Telecommunications for the deaf. American Annals for the Deaf. 139, 22-27.


Bowe, Frank G. (2002). Deaf and hard of hearing Americans’ instant messaging and e-mail use: national survey. American Annals for the Deaf. 147, 6-10


No Author Given. (August 19, 1989). Telephones come to terms with sign language. New Scientist. 123, 31.

Also see: Telecommunications article by Jamie Peck

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