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Hello! A Person is Calling You Through Relay…

“…This is a relay operator X. Have you received a relay call before?” When people not familiar with deafness hears those words, they often hang up thinking it is telemarketing. It is not – phone relay services is what deaf/hoh people use to communicate with hearing parties.

If you are not familiar with phone relay services, they were introduced in 1970s to enable deaf and hard of hearing people to communicate with hearing parties through an operator that relays messages. Although AG Bell was inspired by deaf people to invent phone, ironically his invention was not accessible to those who cannot hear for many years until the teletypewriter or text telephone (TTY) was invented in 1964 by Robert Weitbrecht, a deaf physicist, and James Marsters, a deaf dentist and private pilot, in collaboration with Andrew Saks, an electrical engineer and grandson of the founder of the Saks Fifth Avenue department store chain.

The earliest TTYs were big and heavy at around 300 pounds, but they shrank in size and became portable in the late 1970s and through the 1980s. Also, back then, only people having TTYs could communicate with each other which meant that deaf people could not communicate with hearing people or businesses unless they also had TTYs.

So telecommunications relay service (TRS) was established allow a communication assistant (CA) relay calls between deaf and hearing parties by typing what a hearing person says and voicing what a deaf person says. The ADA mandated in 1990 nationwide relay services to be available 24/7 in every state. Finally, after over a century of frustrations with AG Bell’s inaccessible phone invention, many deaf and hard of hearing people could finally start making phone calls to anyone.

With the rise of the Internet and text messaging, less people started using TTYs and switched to internet-based relay services. We can make phone relay services using a computer or even a mobile phone via an instant messaging software. Those who use sign language can enjoy video phone relay services.

Currently, there are many various telecommunications relay services provided to deaf and hard of hearing people and also to those with speech difficulties:

  • TTY to Voice / Voice to TTY: Traditional phone relay services between a TTY and a regular phone.
  • Voice Carry Over (VCO): Used by a deaf or hard of hearing person who can speak for a hearing person to understand, but needs to read typed text provided by an operator to show what is said.
  • Captioned Telephone: Similar to VCO with the difference in that the operator uses speech recognition to revoice.
  • IP Relay or Web-based text relay: Similar to TTY relay services with the difference in that typed text is relayed via a web browser widget or an instant messaging software that could be used on a computer, tablet, or mobile phone.
  • Video Relay Service (VRS): It allows deaf people to make phone calls by signing instead of typing via an interpreter and using a webcam.

Even with those options to call hearing people, many of us prefer to communicate via email, texting, or instant messaging rather than via phone or relay services only. For these reasons, businesses are not advised to put phone fields as required in their forms:

Following is the video showing what different types of relay services look like.

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