I saw a deaf person making a phone call today

Well… a video call.

Today I witnessed a young chap in the college cafeteria on his netbook, which is certainly nothing remarkable. But I saw him making these wild gestures at the screen, at which point I realized he was doing sign language. And on his screen I could see the video image of a woman who looked like she was probably his mother on the other end of a Skype video chat.

Still nothing remarkable, but it just suddenly hit me then and there that deaf people have never been able to use phones, and until quite recently in history it would have been extremely difficult for a deaf person to stay in touch with their loved ones from a distance. Even at the advent of e-mail/SMS only via text, with easy/free live video chats being an even more recent innovation.

Sometimes I feel a little too over-connected, and I sure as hell don’t want to video chat with anyone because the phone is awkward enough to me. But I couldn’t help but think that for this kid and his family, that must be something pretty damn awesome.

It was a pretty cool thing to see, but deaf people have been using phones for a long time. There’s a kind of relay service, where they call an operator, and input text on a computer screen. The operator then speaks to the person on the other end of the line. Reverse the process for replies to the deaf person. I’ve had a few calls like that at the office.

Now Baudot code might finally die.

That link goes the Wikipedia article on TDDs, which is how deaf people used to make phone calls back in the semi-old days (beginning in the early 1970s). It’s just a simple text terminal hooked to a modem that sends and receives text down phone lines. Communication between a deaf and a hearing person is dependent on an operator who can read the text the deaf person is typing and type what the hearing person is saying. The encoding scheme used for these devices in America is Baudot code, an ancient standard dating from the late 1800s.

So, no, this isn’t the first time in history deaf people have been able to use phones. It is, however, the first time phones have been anywhere near as convenient for deaf people as they are for hearing people.

Of course, text messaging and e-mail have been available just as long for deaf people as for hearing people. Heck, I’m a regular hearing person, and I use my phone a lot more for text messages than for talking anyway. I’ll actually bet that texting has been a lot more important for helping deaf people communicate than video phones will ever be.

Ah, now that you guys mention it I do vaguely recall hearing about that system. I believe the context was as a prank some kids did to see how much obscene shit they could get the operator to say. :slight_smile:

Still, seems like kind of a PITA.

Truth. Just about all the deaf people I know have phones with full keyboards. My ASL teacher says that SMS was first made widely available to the public because of legal requirements to accommodate the hard of hearing, but I can’t find anything to substantiate that.

Right. That’s my point: This is the first time text messaging has existed, and the first time email has even been an option for most people.

I also use my phone like this. Texting is just usually more convenient for everyone, since it doesn’t imply anyone has to be available right that instant.

It’s a combo actually. Texting is freaking AMAZING! But there are video phones and SKYPE for more human contact.

i only have (hopefully) temporary moderatly severe hearing loss, and I have found text messaging to be extremely helpful. The Beau and I have been texting quite a bit around the house just to avoid “Pardon?” repeat "Pardon? Rpeat. “pardon?” oh nevermind…

I tried that system out once. We tried really hard to get the operator to say something personal rather than just relaying what we were saying. She never did. Very professional!

This was in the context of seeing if it might be good for my friend’s mother, who was getting increasingly hard of hearing.

Karl Pilkington made a similar observation on the Egypt episode of Idiot Abroad, when he accidentally went to a KFC for deaf people.


There’s a comedian named Kris Tinkle who does a funny bit about being a Relay operator for the deaf. Wish I could link to it, but it doesn’t appear to be online.