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Assistive Hearing Technology Needs Upgrades

Lisa Ryan, WBOI News

As part of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, WBOI has been looking at how accessible Fort Wayne is for people with disabilities.

About one in five people have disabilities in the U.S. That number includes people who are hearing impaired, but not everyone in the deaf community sees it as a disability.

Technology can break down communication barriers for people who are hearing impaired and help provide more equality for everyone.

WBOI’s Lisa Ryan called Karen Penn of DeafLink to find out more about communication options for people who are hearing impaired.

An American Sign Language translator moderated the call. Penn, who is deaf, explained how the call works through the voice of the operator.

“The interpreter and the caller see each other, so I sign what I want to say to the interpreter. The interpreter voices it to the hearing caller,” Penn said. “When the hearing caller is ready for a response, they tell the video interpreter, who then signs it back to me.”

Credit Lisa Ryan, WBOI News
DeafLink's Garth Sponseller and Karen Penn demonstrate how to use a video phone.

Penn says this is helpful because sign language is not a direct translation of English. Older technology requires people who are hearing impaired to type what they want to say, and an operator voices it. It’s difficult for people who have a better understanding of sign language than spoken and written English.

The translator sees the caller on a video phone. Think Skype, but with an operator moderating the call. The technology has helped communication a lot. But if a person is out and needs to make a call, there aren’t many options … unless a business or organization has installed a video phone.

Credit Lisa Ryan, WBOI News
This sign at the library alerts patrons that the video phone should only be used by people who are hearing impaired.

Fort Wayne has three video phones—one in the main library, one at the airport and one at Easter Seals Arc. DeafLink’s Angelica Lehman is working to have more of the phones installed in the city.

“I do hope that other businesses will see just the access that it has. Just, you know, the ability to open up your business or, you know, whatever kind of place it is to other groups of people, if you really don’t get a monetary value out of it, you know, it really does have an impact for the greater community,” Lehman said.

The phones are free for a business to install.

Garth Sponseller, the director of DeafLink, says video phones help provide accessibility and equality for a group with its own culture and community.

“Some other disability groups, they say, ‘This is me, I have this disability,’ but in the deaf community, they say, ‘I’m not disabled. I’m just deaf,’” Sponseller said. “The deaf community has its own culture, its own linguistics. ASL has its own grammar and syntax, its own history.”

Sponseller’s parents are both deaf. He says growing up, he didn’t realize the modifications in his home were different than anyone else’s house.

“We used a lot of assistive technology in the home. You know, so if someone rang the doorbell, it wasn’t an audible doorbell that we heard, but rather a flashing light,” he said. “So for us hearing kids and our parents, who are deaf, we were alerted by the flashing light. That seemed normal to me.”

But Sponseller says some people can’t afford the technology to make life more accessible.

The more video phones are in the community, the easier it is for a person who is deaf or hearing impaired to call a cab, make appointments or just call a friend or family member. 

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