The FCC Just Approved a Landmark New Way For Deaf People to Communicate
The Federal Communications Commission last week approved one of the most important advances in communications technology for deaf and hard of hearing people in decades, in one of the agency’s final acts under the leadership of outgoing FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.
“This is a way for deaf and hard of hearing consumers to communicate in ways that haven’t been available before.”
For decades, tens of thousands of deaf, hard of hearing, speech-impaired, and deaf-blind people have relied on TTY devices, which are rudimentary keyboards connected to the traditional PSTN telephone network that facilitate non-verbal, text-based communication. (For deaf-blind people, these machines can be connected to devices that produce a Braille display.)
The origins of TTY devices date back to the 1960s, when Dr. James Marsters, a deaf orthodontist, worked with two colleagues to develop a groundbreaking system that used an acoustic coupler—what we now call a modem—to send audio tones over the phone network that were then converted into readable messages. In their earliest form, TTY devices were bulky, slow-operating machines that weighed as much as 200 pounds, and printed messages between the sender and recipient on paper.
n later years, Marsters would help advance the development of Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS), which improved phone communication between deaf and hearingpeople with the assistance of a third-party person, known as a “communications assistant” (CA), who translated TTY text messages from the sender into speech for the hearing recipient.
The advent of video-calling in the late 1990s and early 2000s led to the development of Video Relay Services (VRS), in which deaf people use American Sign Language to communicate by video with a CA, who then translates the sign language into speech
A Successful Translation From Research to Reality
Vogler, a computer scientist who has been deaf since birth, was a driving force behind the transition and was specifically cited by both FCC Chairman Wheeler and FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai for his contributions to the process. (Gallaudet University is a world-renowned liberal arts university based in Washington, DC, where all of the programs and services are designed for deaf and hard of hearing students.)
Vogler, 43, became interested in engineering and computer science at an early age. “I got my first computer at the age of 12, the venerable C64,” he told Motherboard. “From there one thing led to another. I became interested in what made computers tick, got into self-taught programming, and eventually figured out that this was what I wanted to do for a living.”
First, the TTY devices of that era couldn’t distinguish between uppercase and lowercase letters, nor could they produce important characters like the “@” symbol—a major drawback for an internet-savvy computer scientist. Second, the devices were too time-consuming. They could only transmit 60 words per minute, and only one party to a TTY conversation could send messages at a time, slowing discussions to a crawl.
“In dropping TTY we gave up direct communication access with the mainstream phone world, and direct effective emergency calling,” Vogler said. “RTT offers us the opportunity to get both back.”
Over the coming months and years, wireless companies like AT&T and device manufacturers like Samsung are expected to introduce RTT apps for consumers, with the ultimate goal being “native” functionality baked into, and interoperable with, all smartphones and text-messaging apps. Ultimately, RTT technology could prove so popular among all consumers, not just deaf and hard of hearing people, that it could become a new standard for text-messaging services.
For FCC Chairman Wheeler, who announced last week that he is stepping down in January, the successful vote advancing the TTY to RTT transition amounts to a poignant and deeply symbolic conclusion to a three-year tenure during which he made communications accessibility a key priority for the nation’s top telecom regulatory agency. In his comments at last Thursday’s meeting, Wheeler used American Sign Language to praise and thank the assembled deaf and hard of hearing advocates who have worked tirelessly to encourage FCC action on this issue.
“Chairman Tom Wheeler has, in his few years at the FCC, boldly and efficiently removed barriers that have long frustrated deaf and hard of hearing people with respect to making telephone calls, watching videos, and using the internet,” Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, said in a statement. “The NAD thanks him for his dedicated efforts to make the world more accessible for everyone, and wishes him well on his future endeavors.”