Creating problems for the deaf

Part 3 of weekend series




Edwin Carrington has a wife and a month-old baby, and he’s finally bought the country house he’s always wanted.

The problem is, he needs to raise hundreds of dollars before he can tell his friends and family about it.

Carrington is one of an increasing number of deaf and hard of hearing people in Illinois who have videophones – essentially, a two-way camera that serves as a telephone. But, like many deaf and hard of hearing people in rural Illinois,

Carrington can neither access nor afford the high-speed internet service needed to operate the videophone.

For years, deaf people have had to rely on teletypewriters (TTYs) or texting services to serve in place of telephones. But text-based conversations are awkward and slow. The caller has to type out a message, then wait as the person on the other end receives the message and enters a reply, said Janet Lambert, acting director of the Illinois Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission.

If a deaf person wants to reach a hearing person or a business with a TTY, the deaf person has to send his or her typed message to a relay service operator. The operator reads the message aloud to the receiver, then types the receiver’s verbal reply.

“For you and I to pick up the phone and make a phone call and call for a pizza or call the doctor’s office is very easy and a quick process,” Lambert said. “A conversation a deaf person may have in trying to make an appointment with a doctor’s office (with a TTY) could take three times longer than it would take you or I to make the same phone call.”

Conversing on a videophone, though, is far easier and quicker.

In a videophone conversation between two deaf people, they can communicate using American Sign Language. If talking to a hearing person who has a regular telephone, a deaf person can use a videophone relay service for his or her part of the conversation. Unlike with TTY relays, the speed of ASL and the videophone allows such relayed conversations to be held almost in real-time.

Moving from a TTY to a videophone is like “going from a telegraph to a cell phone,” said Nick Ziemer, president of the Peoria-based Heartland chapter of the Illinois Association for the Deaf.

Ziemer and Carrington were interviewed by telephone via a videophone relay service.

“ASL requires four things that are key for communication: facial expression, intonation in voice, body language, finger spelling for words,” Ziemer said. “On a

TTY machine, you can’t show any of that.

“Suppose you had a teacher that taught their class monotone – no expression, no intonation in the voice. How clear would you get the understanding?”

Many deaf people also prefer videophones because ASL – not English – is their primary language.

“Video access allows them to speak in their native language, which is American Sign Language,” Lambert said. “Technology has given an opportunity for consumers who are deaf and hard of hearing to participate in society the same way that you and I do equally.”



Communication problems



It’s easy to get a videophone – the dozen or so video relay services in the United States give them away to deaf and hard of hearing people. Calling a relay service also doesn’t cost any more than a regular telephone call.

However, most videophones require an internet connection with a speed of 256 kilobytes per second, said Diana Lewis, vice president of marketing at Sorenson Communications, the largest videophone manufacturer and relay provider in the U.S.  The high speed is needed because the video feed must be smooth and clear enough to convey the complex hand signs and subtle gestures that make up American Sign Language, she said.

But many areas of rural Illinois don’t have high-speed broadband access at all.

Telecommunications companies “are naturally cherry-picking locations in order to install the services – places where they can capture the most revenue,” said Ed Feser, a professor or urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “It makes perfect sense for their economic bottom line, but leaves a fair number of people unserved.”

Even in areas that are wired for broadband, deaf people usually have to sign up for the fastest – and therefore the costliest – internet speed in order to use a videophone.  That can mean cable bills of $50 or more per month, when disproportionate numbers of deaf people are unemployed or hold low-paying jobs.

“You have someone who’s making $17,000 a year, and that’s just not an option,” Lambert said.



Rural frustration



In rural areas where there is no broadband cable internet, the price can be even higher.

Carrington, 39, who teaches ASL and deaf culture at Illinois Central College near East Peoria, first got a videophone in 2003 when he lived in Washington, Ill.

“It is so much easier to communicate because sign language is my first language, and it’s visual, and I can see it. And I can understand everything.”

But in September, he and his then-pregnant wife moved out of town into a farmhouse outside of Morton.

“I always wanted to buy my own home out in the country, raise a family there,” Carrington said. “And then I moved here, and wow, it was really difficult to get internet services.”

For five months, Carrington searched in vain for a cable or DSL Internet service provider that could provide high-speed Internet to his home. So he turned to the only other option – satellite.

But the only two satellite companies he found required costly deposits: WildBlue charged a $300 startup deposit, while HughesNet demanded $1,000 up front.

With a new baby and a new house, Carrington said, those prices were out of reach.

Maybe he can raise the money by taking a second job, he said.

In the meantime, the only way Carrington can talk to his parents in Oklahoma about their grandchild is to make a 20-minute drive over to ICC late at night to use the school’s high-speed internet.

“This is becoming a regular process whenever I need to call someone,” Carrington said. “If I had the VP (at home), I could show my family the baby right there on the videophone. And they’d be able to see the baby, we’d be able to talk about the baby. But if I write them a letter, I explain what the baby looks like, but they can’t see the baby.”

“So that was very depressing for me, and I’ve been very frustrated with the whole situation,” he said.

HughesNet spokeswoman Judy Blake said no internet plan offered by the company required $1,000 up front.

But Blake said that to obtain a 256K connection fron HughesNet, Carrington would have to buy a package designed for small businesses that costs $700 initially for equipment – although there’s a $100 rebate -- and $100 a month for regular service, she said. (Customers can also pay higher monthly rates in exchange for not paying the $700 up front, Blake said.)

Asked if it was a concern that people have to buy a business package to run a videophone, Blake said she was unsure whether HughesNet officials were even aware of videophones.

“There’s a certain point where you can’t go below a certain price because it’s not cost-effective,” she said. “You can’t provide the service or the equipment at a loss.”

A larger antenna is needed to handle the greater transfer speeds, she said.

Wildblue spokeswoman Joanne Dant said her company is the most affordable satellite internet provider available, and she expects the equipment cost to decline in the future.

“The upfront (equipment) costs is a barrier for some,” Dant said. “Unfortunately, it’s a fairly new service.”

Neither HughesNet nor WildBlue has programs to help the poor or disabled with Internet costs, Blake and Dant said.



Making Choices



Karen and Terry Batts have access to cable broadband service for their videophone. But with Karen in danger of losing her job after suffering a workplace injury, the couple, who live just west of Peoria, is making sacrifices rather than give up their videophone.

Karen is hard-of-hearing, while Terry is deaf.

 “(The videophone) has become our lifeline. My husband, who never uses a phone, is now for the first time chatting away with a big grin of smile which I could never paid anyone enough,” Karen said in an e-mail. “To enjoy seeing him having full delight in talking in his own language and not be misunderstood what he is saying is a pure joy to have.”

Karen hurt her foot at work after slipping on a wet floor and is on workers compensation. She said she’s unsure whether her employer will hire her back.

Rather than stop paying Tel-Star CableVision an additional $45 a month for high-speed Internet, however, Karen said she and her husband are cutting costs elsewhere. They heat only one room of their house to keep their electric bill low, and they recently switched their auto insurance coverage from a full coverage to limited liability.

“We are now eating less fresh fruit and vegetables,” she said in the e-mail. “Since my husband is a diabetic, it has been my habit to buy fresh food to keep his sugar count at a "normal" stage. But now I had to switch to canned goods -- which isn't good for my husband’s health, but it has to do for now.”

Tel-Star manager Chris Decker declined comment. But Karen Batts says she intends to remain a loyal broadband customer.

“My husband loves his ‘phone’ and I just cannot take that away from him,” Karen said. “That‘s the price we have to be it.”



Jeremy Pelzer can be reached at (217) 782-3095 or at