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Updated 10:00 AM September 29, 2008




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Videophones provide instant communication for deaf

U-M is one of the first Big Ten institutions to provide public videophones to serve its deaf staff, faculty members, students and guests. The new phones, which allow visual communication for those who use American Sign Language (ASL), have been installed at three campus kiosk locations and are available as portable bedside units at University Hospital.
Teddy Dorsette III, a screen arts and cultures student from Detroit and event coordinator for the Hearing Impaired Student Organization, prepares to make a call using a videophone at a kiosk in the Michigan Union. (Photo by Jillian Bogater)

The advent of cell phone text messaging has been hailed by the deaf community as a welcome advancement but text messages and e-mails do not provide as instant a message source as telephone video transmission, says Carole Dubritsky, University Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator and assistant director, Office of Institutional Equity.

"We're really excited. It provides a better quality of living and it welcomes people to our campus," Dubritsky says.

The money to pay for videophones was made available to relay service agencies through federal grants, she says. The University contributed special T1 phone lines to the project.

Earlier this month, phones were installed at the Michigan Union Campus Information Center and at Peirpont Commons. That brings the total number of videophones on campus to seven. In October 2007 the University Hospital was provided with a videophone for the hospital lobby, one for the Emergency department and two portable bedside units.

Christa Moran, sign language interpreter with U-M Hospitals, says the portable videophones already have made a difference.

"We had a patient who had brain surgery and was able to call her mother via the videophone pulled up to her bed," Moran says. "She was exhausted and had to lay back. She said, 'Signing is much more comfortable for me than typing.' Her mom was able to see her, sign to her and be assured that she was OK.

"The importance of this is that for many deaf people American Sign Language is their first and most comfortable language; English is their second. When in a hospital and not feeling well they need to have access to their families, just as a hearing person has access via a telephone."

Before texting and the Internet, many deaf people communicated through the Michigan Relay System, which required them to type messages on a keyboard that were read to recipients by an operator.

Videophone technology, developed by Sorenson Communications, provides face-to-face video interaction with other deaf people or with a sign language interpreter. "They can communicate in their own language. Not only can they see the language on the hands, but also they can read the expressions on the faces of the people that they are communicating with, which carries meaning in ASL," Moran says.

"We want education to take the step into the next century and provide the best possible communications for any deaf students, staff or faculty," Dubritsky says.

The State of Michigan Division of Deaf and Hard of Hearing estimates there are about 3,000 deaf people in Washtenaw County alone, with another 26,000 who are hard-of-hearing.

To further serve the deaf community, the Deaf Access Program is being created at University Hospital, supported by the Interpreter Services Program and the Office of Institutional Equity. "Our goal is to set the standard for accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community across the state, and even the U.S.," Moran says.

Dubritsky and Moran credit Leslie Smith of MCIT and Tim O'Jack of Sorenson Communications for helping supply videophones to the University Hospitals. Dubritsky also noted Jeff Hulbert from CAC Flint who provided the campus videophones, Bob Yecke of University Unions, his Information Technology staff, and Maureen Gelardi and Jill Rice from the Office of Services for Students for their work to have the videophones installed on campus at the start of this semester.

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