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A better way to make a call

by Maggie O'Neill
Appeal Staff Writer
Kevin Clifford/Nevada Appeal
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Few teachers allow students to make phone calls during school, but in Marci Wilson’s classroom a line was installed just for that.

“We’ve already used it tons of times,” she said. “One of my students used it to apply to college. She’s been calling around to ask for funding.”

It’s not the typical phone system. It includes a television, video camera and software.

It makes Wilson’s class the first in the state to provide its deaf and hard-of-hearing students with progressive technology called video-relay service.

“I love it,” signed 18-year-old senior Chelsea Owen-Self through an interpreter. “Video-conferencing is so much better than TTY (or Teletypewriter). You get to see the people you talk to and what expressions they’re making. You can just chat away.”

To use it, the television is turned on, a phone number dialed and an operator reached. Both the hard-of-hearing student and the operator appear on the television at both ends. The student signs to the operator, who then translates verbally to the hearing person being called. That person hears the operator through a phone line.

But if the hard-of-hearing student calls another hard-of-hearing speaker who has the same equipment, they can communicate directly with each other using American Sign Language. Both of their images appear on the television.

“This is really nice because with this they can use their own language,” said Cindy Benedetti, an interpreter at Carson High School. “In (the spoken English) language, our intonations are in our voice, but the intonation in their language is in the body.”

“I like it,” said Tessa Buzick, a 16-year-old sophomore. “It’s very cool because I can talk to my friends all the time. It’s better than TTY.”

Previously, when students wanted to make a call, they would use TTY. To do so, they sent text messages to an operator by typing into a machine like a small typewriter. The operator would receive the text message and speak it to a hearing person.

If the hard-of-hearing person was communicating with a hard-of-hearing person, he or she would communicate directly using text messages through a phone line.

“The regular TTY you have to write,” Wilson said. “A lot of times deaf people have trouble with English. When they’re writing back and forth, it doesn’t sound too good. It’s not their language.”

Students demonstrated the new service on Friday for members from Carson City’s Emblem and Sertoma clubs, who paid for the dedicated line.

“We are astounded at the progress in technology and pleased that we’re part of it,” said Emblem Club President Elect Betty Mahoney.

There was no cost to the school district.

Chelsea placed a call to Gary Olsen, executive director of the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Resource Center. He is the person who showed the service to Keith Croskery, student support services director for the Carson City School District.

Croskery contacted Sorenson (www.sorensonvrs.com) to obtain the free software that is available to any deaf or hard-of-hearing person to use in their home. But, the person must have a dedicated line.

Chelsea was accepted into Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., a couple of weeks ago and wants to study veterinary science. Not only has she used the service to talk with Olsen, who also graduated from Gallaudet, and with her friends, but also to make calls to her future school.

“This is huge,” Wilson said. “Old students have been calling in and talking to our students. It’s just the huge capabilities of it. We could have virtual classrooms. We could call other school districts and get them connected.”

Students can use the service when they come into Wilson’s study-skills class each day or during lunch break. The rest of the day they have classes in other rooms, where interpreters help with translation.

“It really opens up the world for them,” Benedetti said. “They’re using their own language to communicate. They’re not using someone else’s language to compensate.”

Other projects in the works in the school district include a college-level American Sign Language class taught at 2:30 p.m. in Carson High School’s tech center, and is open to all students. This fall, a conversational sign language class will be offered at the district’s professional development center. For information, call Croskery at 283-2350.

“We’re going to increase considerably the opportunity for language development in the deaf and heard-of-hearing community,” he said.

• Contact reporter Maggie O’Neill at moneill@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1219.