Hearing-impaired make their voices heard to obtain special phone system

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ANNAPOLIS -- Jamie Tucker was imploring a member of the House of Delegates to vote for a bill that would give 350,000 deaf Marylanders access to the telephone system.

"I'll have to do some research. I'll call you," the delegate said.

Mr. Tucker paused and smiled.

"How will you call me?" he asked. Mr. Tucker is deaf.

Like most Marylanders, the legislator does not have a Telecommunication Device for the Deaf (TDD) -- the electronic device similar to a teleprinter by which deaf peoplecan communicate using the phone system.

Mr. Tucker does have a TDD, but he can communicate now only with others who have one, by using a keyboard to send messages across a telephone line.

What would cure that is a system that could receive TDD messages and relay them to the hearing world. Such a center would provide a telephone link between Marylanders who hear and those who do not. A hearing person manning the relay center would provide the bridge, communicating simultaneously by voice and by TDD.

A picket sign held by one of 1,500 demonstrators at a recent State House rally put the problem this way:

"Telephones Plus No Relay Equals Deaf and Hearing Worlds . . . Apart," Mr. Tucker, a Laurel resident who is an admissions official at Gallaudet University, makes the point in another way. Holding a copy of the 3-inch-thick Yellow Pages, he shows a universe of businesses with which he cannot communicate -- and which cannot communicate with him. In the other hand, he holds the far smaller listing of TDD owners, few of them businesses.

The struggle to get a relay system up and running in Maryland has been long and difficult, encountering not only financial problems but public perception problems of profound concern to the deaf community. Groups such as the Maryland Association for the Deaf are determined to have such a system, but they are sensitive to suggestions that they are asking for something of value to the deaf only.

In California, Mr. Tucker said, 250,000 calls a month are handled by that state's relay system -- only 20 percent of them from the deaf.

"The service is for everyone. It's not for us alone. It's not a social program," he says.

A relay system has been authorized in Maryland since 1987 -- but because there is no sufficient funding source, the volunteer system now in operation can handle no more than one in a hundred calls, Mr. Tucker says.

Thirty-eight other states already have a fully operational service, and Maryland will eventually be required to provide one.

The federal Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 says that as the state's main telephone service, the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. must have a statewide relay system in operation by 1993.

C&P; is responsible for making sure a relay system exists. But the company will not provide the service, according to Peter B. White, the company representative in Annapolis. Two years ago, the state received bids of between $2 million and $5 million per year to provide the service. Current estimates put the cost of the system at about $10 million.

Last year, the state spent about $560,000 on the system -- and, at one point, considered funding a statewide, 24-hour system with public funds. A suggestion that the state might pay the total cost of the system was quickly shelved when revenue shortages forced Gov. William Donald Schaefer to cut deeply into program funds across the board.

The half-million dollars needed to keep a limited system going this year was dropped from the budget -- although Mr. Schaefer announced recently that he had obtained $48,000 in private contributions to keep the system going a bit longer.

Federal law requires the state to provide a means for financing some of the relay center costs -- either by an appropriation, authorizing fees for the service or folding the costs into the basic phone service charge.

The phone company and the Schaefer administration prefer a 45-cents-per-month fee charged to each business and residential phone subscriber. This so-called surcharge approach, they say, is easier and less costly. Fees would not be taxable.

The company is also loath to add anything to the cost of basic services at a time when it faces increasing competition from other telephone companies. Mr. White says the company prefers not to include in the base rate the cost of a service it facilitates but does not provide.

The imposition of a fee by the legislature, if that route is chosen, would relieve the phone company of having to present a full-fledged and lengthy appeal for a rate increase to state regulators.

But members of the deaf community feel this is exactly what should happen.

Robert J. Mather, a Marylander who uses the TDD system, observes that the Delaware Public Service Commission recently issued a ruling that supports the argument that rate-based financing for a relay system is the most appropriate way to go.

"The use of a surcharge seriously violates fundamental principles of traditional rate-making, because it enables a utility to treat as a distinctand separate item the expenses involved in the provision of a particular service," the commission wrote in a recent ruling.

Jamie Tucker and the Maryland Association for the Deaf support a bill filed by Delegate Thomas H. Hattery, D-Frederick, which calls for the rate base approach. Mr. Hattery sponsored the original relay legislation in 1987.

Delegate Hattery says he is urging a compromise under which the service costs would initially be covered by the fee, then would be reconsidered for inclusion in the rate structure when the current freeze on basic phone service rates is lifted next year.

Diane Ebberts, recently appointed by Governor Schaefer to address the problems of deaf Marylanders, said Delegate Hattery's compromise might be acceptable.

"That's the sort of thing we would look at seriously," she said.

Ms. Ebberts and others who are working on a solution to the problem try to see it from both points of view. The deaf community is concerned about a fee labeled by the phone company in a way that could be stigmatizing. She said she is confident a way can be found to avoid that result.

If enough people stop to think about how the relay system helps everyone, the criticism should be blunted, Ms. Ebberts said.

An enthusiastic promoter of the relay system, she nevertheless had a warning: The intrusions of telemarketers, and even new phone services, may come as a shock to beneficiaries of the new service.

"They'll never be able to eat dinner in peace again," she said.

Mr. Tucker says the intrusions won't matter. "For years," he says, "we have been isolated. The new system would be heaven."

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