The Southwest Center for Independence has a brand-new piece of high-tech equipment that it hopes will allow deaf people to communicate easier among themselves and with the world at large.
It’s a Public Access Videophone that allows the deaf and people with severe hearing loss to communicate via sign language through high-speed Internet.
“We want the public to know that it’s available,” center Executive Director Martha Mason said last week. “We don’t know the size of the deaf community here, but we want to help members communicate with each other.”
The center is an advocate for people with limitations, provides referrals, teaches skills for independent living and offers peer support.
The videophone hangs on the wall much like an old pay phone. But it’s a shiny metal box with a screen and attached keyboard.
Each of the 12 units of the Association of Colorado Centers for Independent Living recently received a similar videophone free from Project Endeavor, a program of Communication Service for the Deaf.
Communication Service for the Deaf is a private nonprofit that provides an array of programs for the deaf and promotes public awareness of problems affecting the deaf and hard of hearing.
Videophone technology is similar to Skype, but users connect slightly differently, said Joanna Dingman, a customer support specialist at Project Endeavor in Sioux Falls, S.D.
The videophones, Dingman said, are distributed through the nonprofit Communication Service for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. A federal grant funded the acquisition of the devices.
Dian Jenkins, who coordinates services for people with disabilities at Fort Lewis College and has been certified as a sign language interpreter nationally since 1984, demonstrated Tuesday how the videophone works.
She communicated with Annette Reichman, a deaf employee at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, who had just returned from a conference of the World Federation of the Deaf in Durbin, South Africa.
Jenkins typed in Reichman’s telephone number on her videophone keyboard. The call turned on a light on Reichman’s videophone to alert her to the call.
Each was visible to the other during the conversation, Jenkins standing in front of the newest videophone in Durango (she has one at home), and Reichman, seated at a desk in her office.
Jenkins translated the conversation, including the “you know” and “uh huh” space fillers, for the clueless others present.
Sign language is as expressive and has all the nuances of voiced conversation, Jenkins said.
Candace Jeep at Animas Valley Audiology Associates said she has only a handful of patients who sign only.
“Advances in technology are wonderful,” Jeep said. “Cochlear implants allow people who are deaf to hear, although they have to learn how to hear again.”
Cellphone texting also has made communicating easier for the deaf, she said.
Videophones are yet another dimension of technology that broaden horizons for the deaf, Jeep said.
Jeep knows a couple whose son, now 20 months old, was born deaf. They are learning sign language and teaching him sign.
“When the baby grows up, he’ll be able to stay in touch with friends via videophone,” she said.