Text messaging revolution for the hard of hearing

If, in about five years time, you find yourself being pleasantly surprised by the quality, reliability, clarity and ease of use…

If, in about five years time, you find yourself being pleasantly surprised by the quality, reliability, clarity and ease of use of third generation (3G) mobile telecommunications services and applications available on your mobile phone or device, the chances are it will be thanks to the input of deaf people.

The very idea of a deaf person using a telephone may seem oxymoronic, but mobile phones have been bought by just about every young deaf person and used, in most cases, purely for text messaging (SMS).

The fact that SMS is a mainstream technology (ie. cheap and accessible) has contributed to the huge impact it has had on the social independence of members of the deaf community.

Given the leap forward in instant telecommunications for deaf people made possible by SMS, the development of third generation mobile services is likely to be vitally important for deaf people because of the potential for delivering quality video images over mobile devices to facilitate communication in sign language or lipreading.


And, if this potential is realised, it will result in the first truly interactive telecommunications for many deaf and hard of hearing people.

A new 3G research project has been recently set up in the UK by a consortium of European researchers, deaf-support organisations, and mobile operators Ericsson and Vodafone UK (the new owners of Eircell). Called WISDOM (Wireless Information Systems for Deaf People On the Move), this three-year, 6 million project will enable deaf people to have an opportunity to make sure that 3G mobile telecommunications is an inclusive and all-encompassing technology.

Funded and sponsored by the European Commission, WISDOM is expected to focus on providing terminals, applications and services for deaf people, with particular emphasis on providing video sign language information on demand, sign language "chat", and remote interpretation services for communicating with hearing people.

The project will also incorporate text communications.

"We believe that this project will deliver key application innovations that will impact everyone," said Paul Donovan, commercial managing director at Vodafone UK.

Indeed, the scale of this project is likely to represent something of a major breakthrough, precisely because it is underpinned by the socially desirable philosophy of designing in accessibility at an early stage.

There is something of a historical irony worth noting here, however. The original inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, had intended his 1876 invention to be a communication aid for hearing impaired people.

Unfortunately, the telephone left deaf people very much behind in the global communications revolution that its invention precipitated.

After many years of having to put up with the hassle of not being able to use such a vital communications device, the convergence of digital technology and telecommunications that has led to the development of SMS has created something of a "killer application" for deaf people (although one new problem is that digital mobile phones create electronic interference when used for voice calls by hearing-aid users).

Until the advent of SMS, profoundly deaf people unable to use a telephone for voice calls either had to rely on relatives or friends to make calls for them, or use a device called a minicom.

This is basically a keyboard with a receptacle for a telephone receiver that is used to conduct an interactive text conversation (much like an Internet chat room) with another minicom user.

Both of these methods have severe disadvantages. In the first instance, messages had to be brief and to the point, such as deciding where to meet up for drink. The regular use of a minicom really depends on the other caller having a minicom, which tends to be rare unless they are close friends or relatives. It is also very expensive, because the process of exchanging messages is slower than with voice calls.

Anytime a deaf person needs to contact a hearing person by telephone, there is relay (or text-to-voice) service operated by Eircom in which a specially-trained operator acts as a conduit between a deaf person with a minicom and a hearing person with no minicom. However, according to many deaf users, this service is unpopular and is usually only used in an absolute emergency.

"Text messages are a real blessing," says Shane Gilchrist from Co Down. "I used to go on dates with people I would have had to contact on phones, which was a real nightmare, but now, it's okay because they can text me! No more pathetic excuses like "Oh, I don't like that relay service woman she has that strange accent... or whatever." I remember my first REAL romance where there was no communication breakdown, thanks to SMS."

The most important thing to note about the high impact of the SMS in the deaf community is the fact that it is a mainstream technology, rather than a specialised assistive technology designed specifically for deaf people or people with disabilities, which usually means that it is expensive and hard to find.

"It's a technology that deaf people jumped at," says Barry Dunne, project manager at the National Association of Deaf People. Although there have been a few problems with delays over the last six months with some text messages, they are mostly instantaneous, he said.

Dunne said that the NAD has been in contact with a number of service-oriented companies to propose the idea of an SMS dial in for certain services, such as the AA.

This would involve creating a dedicated SMS number for deaf members to dial in the event of a car breakdown.

At the moment, like most forms of telecommunications for deaf people, SMS is non-interactive. Indeed, Dunne says that while the use and purchase of minicoms (which are quite expensive) has dropped with the popularity of SMS and e-mail, the interactive nature of minicoms means that they will continue to be used for a while yet.

Katie Berry, from the US, reports that deaf people there don't have SMS mobile phones but use pagers, which are a little bit like mobile minicoms that can be used for pager to pager chatting, sending faxes, text-to-voice and voice-to-text calls. Costing around $100, with a monthly service charge of around $20, it can also be used for sending and retrieving e-mails.

"When I got a job as a supervisor of a treatment programme for deaf people with mental disabilities, I was required to carry a pager at all times. After a while, I realised that life became so easy. If I am out on the streets and I'm late or lost, I can just page to my friends and they would page back to me with directions or whatever."

The Nokia 9110 Communicator, a-top-of-the range mobile phone that has SMS, fax, Internet and e-mail functions, has become popular among some deaf people. Its SMS function is easier to use than other units because has a larger keyboard and screen.

However, it is very expensive (about £400), and the bills tend to be high, according to some users.

The potential of mobile telecommunications, as anyone who has used WAP knows, is still limited. This is why the WISDOM project, and others like it that aim to design in accessibility for deaf people and people with disabilities will be so important.

And best of all they will likely improve the overall quality of new services and their applications.

The common sense of designing in accessibility at an early stage is based on the principle that designing for people with disabilities will result in these things being even easier to access for everyone else.

For example, a new building that is wheelchair accessible is likely to be one that doesn't have too much in the way of steps, doors that are easy to open, well-designed desks, a spacious lift, etc.

In other words what wheelchair users will find accessible will be even more accessible and safe for able-bodied people.

This principle can already be seen in Microsoft's Windows operating system, which contains a variety of keyboard and screen settings for people with disabilities, including those who are deaf, partially sighted, or have limited limb dexterity.

Assistive technologies for people with disabilities are very specialised, varied and designed to suit particular needs, but the telecommunication needs of deaf people are similar enough that they can be integrated easily into the design of mobile phone services for everyone.

However, the later you consider issues of accessibility in the design stages of a product or service, the more expensive it gets, according to design experts.

"Once the afterthought of the technology society, deaf people will now become the yardstick of the success of mobile telecommunications in the 21st century," said Professor Jim Kyle of the University of Bristol's Centre for Deaf Studies, one of research participants in the WISDOM project.