Sign language is entering cyberspace, as a plethora of new technologies are expanding the abilities of deaf people to communicate - and not just by whipping out a handheld computer to type messages or flipping on the Internet to receive e-mails.
Instead, broadband and video technologies are enabling the deaf for the first time to "convey the information in their own language instead of relying on the written word," said Janet Harkins, director of technology access at Gallaudet University in Washington, the country's premier school for the deaf.
Harkins points out that technology had already given the deaf a strong sense of independence, allowing them to have "closer relationships with hearing family and friends because they can get in touch with them in a variety of ways." But new technologies have gone beyond that, reinforcing the deaf culture built on American Sign Language.
Before the widespread use of e-mail and text-pagers for distant communications, deaf people relied on ASL interpreters or TTY machines, an adaptation of the teletype machine.
With the arrival of Web cameras, their interactions changed drastically, a significance not necessarily appreciated by a hearing world that often assumes someone signing conveys the exact words with hands alone.
Signers integrate facial expressions, arm movements and body language along with the fingers to deliver the message in a language with its own sophisticated grammar. That is why seeing a person signing is critical for full comprehension.
"The deaf use vocal tone and pitch ... called facial grammar," explained Denise Perdue, assistant director of the Maryland Office of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
Whereas the hearing world relies on vocal intonation to convey meaning, deaf people, for example, raise their eyebrows to indicate questions or emphasize points by puffing their cheeks or pursing their lips.
Hayley Jeeter, the hearing daughter of a deaf parent, describes ASL as a "very dynamic language" and confesses that "it seems that spoken English is sometimes boring in comparison."
Nationally and in Maryland - where more than 200,000 people are believed to have serious hearing problems - the numbers of the deaf have been growing as people are exposed to an increasingly noisy environment and lose hearing earlier in life. Others experience such loss either as part of the aging process or from damage during military service.
Five years ago, with the marketing of video phones to the deaf community, a new business emerged. Video Relay Service allows the deaf to easily engage in telephone conversations through trained ASL interpreters.
After a toll-free number is dialed, a picture appears on the home television screen showing an interpreter, who subsequently completes the connection to a hearing person. That operator then acts as a conduit between the two parties, signing and speaking in a rhythm similar to regular telephone calls. The service is free to the deaf, with expenses underwritten by the universal access surcharge on telephone bills.
"Technological advances have been a tremendous impact," said Phil Aiello, one of two deaf owners of TCS Associates in Wheaton, which specializes in advanced technology and systems integration.
When communications depended on using teletype-based TTY, it resulted in occasional misinterpretations by relay operators. And "many times the hearing person didn't want to take the relay call at all because it was very, very time-consuming," Aiello said. "With video relay, it's much faster. ... It eliminates misperceptions, misunderstandings and frustration."
Louis Schwarz, a deaf financial adviser in Bethesda whose office is filled with electronic gadgets adapted with signal lights, celebrates video phones for personal reasons.
"My three daughters are all hearing," said Schwarz, who was communicating through a Video Relay Service connection. "And they absolutely hated when I needed to call through the traditional - or what they call IT - relay."
Their impatience evaporated when VRS came along, and now, he says, "My daughters are so happy that we talk all the time."
Last month, a new relay center opened in Columbia, adding to Maryland's high concentration of VRS centers. Companies offering the service in the state include Sprint, AT&T;, Verizon/MCI, Hamilton.net and Sorenson Communications Inc., which is generally recognized as the leading provider.
Presently, only customers with broadband capability can access this service. However, in the next few months Sorenson plans to introduce "lower-bandwidth connections, serving a broader audience," said its president and CEO, Pat Nola.
Though this advance is widely accepted, it does have detractors. A number of the senior citizens attending activities at Baltimore's League for People with Disabilities expressed regret at the disappearance of the once-popular weekly meetings called deaf clubs, as they have been overtaken by the technology.
"Because of the Sidekicks [handheld computers similar to the BlackBerry] and the video phones ... there's less human contact," said Laura Sanderling, the league's service coordinator.
What video phones did for the deaf, caption telephones accomplished for the hard of hearing. A person dials a regular telephone number rather than a toll-free number and is automatically connected to a relay center, where a trained operator completes the call.
After the hearing person answers, the operator re-voices the conversation using a customized voice-recognition computer that transcribes the message into captions displayed on a screen on the user's telephone. This allows the caller to read the words while listening to the voice on the other end, ensuring a more natural conversation and avoiding misunderstandings. The caption phones are "very transparent to the user and very easy to use," said Gallaudet's Harkins.
A peek down the pipeline reveals promising ideas for deaf communication being tested at Georgia Tech Research Institute. Recognizing that movie theaters often lack captioning for the deaf, scientists developed and recently signed a leasing agreement to produce a wearable captioning system that transmits text either onto handheld electronic devices or onto micro-displays attached to eyeglasses. Additionally, teams are working on CopyCat, an interactive game intended to aid schoolchildren with their signing skills, and a program called Telesign that will translate when an interpreter isn't available.
But a large advance may rise next year off a design board in Laurent, S.D. "A New Town for Signers" blazes across the Web site of the nonprofit Laurent Institute, which is underwriting the initial design phase for building a small town for the deaf.
Architects are charged with incorporating the "width of a sidewalk, the orientation of the streets to where the sun is so you can walk down the street and sign a conversation, with glass elevators or wire cages," according to the institute's chief executive officer, M.E. Barwacz.
With about 160 signed housing reservations so far, the intention is to eventually attract 2,500 residents and become a tourist destination so "people can experience another culture without leaving the U.S.," Barwacz said.