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Hawaii leads in helping the hearing impaired

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Telecom services for Hawaii's deaf, hard of hearing and speech disabled took a quantum leap forward with the establishment of the Hawaii Relay Center.

The new 2,600-square-foot facility, which officially opened last week in the Pacific Business News Building in Waikiki, brings technologies previously unavailable to the Hawaii community.

In addition to handling TTY, or traditional relay service, which most deaf and hard-of-hearing people have in their home, the new center also offers video relay service and CapTel voice-to-text phone service. Sixteen telephone relay service operators manage calls and are able to process up to 20,000 relay calls a month. Users can connect to the center by dialing 711 or logging on to www.sprintrelayonline.com or www.sprintvrs.com.

Video relay service allows deaf consumers to communicate using American Sign Language with a computer, Web cam and broadband Internet connection as opposed to typing English on a keyboard with the TTY method.

"We are very proud that we can actually do that," said Jane Knox, TRS account manager for Sprint Relay Hawaii. "The deaf community is proud of their language."

CapTel is another new technology, a telephone equipped with a display that allows the user to read what the person on the other end of the line is saying in real time. However, the technology works only for the deaf or hard of hearing who are able to speak.

"It's a brand-new technology that runs on voice recognition software," Knox said.

The user simply dials the desired telephone number using a CapTel phone. The call is then connected to the Hawaii Relay Center. The user can read the words being spoken off the telephone's visual display. CapTel was designed to be used with a traditional land line, but Knox said they've already made a request to its designer to make it compatible with cell phones.

Hawaii is the first state in the nation to set up a CapTel center that provides access to the service statewide, she said.

"We are a leader and hope that others throughout the country will follow us," Knox said.

Sprint plans to give away up tp 25 CapTel phones a month in Hawaii for the next three years.

State and federal law requires the state Public Utilities Commission to make telecommunication relay services available to the community.

The new center complements an array of advanced relay services Sprint launched in July as part of its new three-year relay services contract with the state. Sprint hired nonprofit CSD Communications to manage and operate the facility, while it will provide equipment, technology and network access. The companies currently manage relay services for more than 10 million users nationwide.

The state's contract was not for a specific dollar amount, said Lisa Kikuta, chief researcher at the Public Utilities Commission. Instead, the state agreed to pay Sprint $1.90 per minute of relay service. The contract was previously managed by Verizon Hawaii.

"Sprint is offering additional services that Verizon did not," Kikuta said. "We are very pleased. Community feedback has been very positive with the selection of Sprint."

But all this new technology is no good if people aren't willing to use it, Knox said.

"Both deaf people and the hearing community need to be more aware and willing to try new ideas and new things available right now," she said. "People tend to hold on to old ideas. Sometimes deaf people think that's not for me -- I'm too old, I can't do it. But with the new technology -- you can."

Knox, who is deaf and uses a wheelchair with no handles, points to herself as an example of the empowerment technology brings.

"My wheelchair has no handles because I don't want anyone pushing me," she said. "You can become a partner in the community."

The Hawaii Relay Center brings with it new job opportunities and more business for local retailers.

"At least 10 percent of people in Hawaii ... are deaf or hard of hearing [and] now have access to making calls," Knox said.

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