Talk Of The Broadband Economy

Talk Of The Broadband Economy

Stephanie Dell

Byline: Stephanie Dell

America Online and MCI have teamed to offer a valuable new method of communication for the deaf and hard of hearing. Last month the companies launched the My IP Relay Number Service, which provides the deaf with a personal local number, giving them the ability to receive incoming calls at any time via any computer or mobile device equipped with AOL Instant Messenger access. The service works with the existing AIM Relay service, which offers users the ability to initiate relay calls directly from their AIM buddy list feature.

Here’s how it works: The deaf user registers for a free local telephone number through MCI. Voice callers call the user’s personal local number to be connected to an MCI relay operator. The operator then instant messages the user via AIM, and the deaf user answers by IM-ing back, whether he or she is logged in to a PC or wireless device. The operator facilitates the conversation between the caller and the deaf person by transcribing the caller’s voice into text. In this way, the deaf user can receive calls at any time, at home or via a wireless device, without the use of a teletypewriter phone.

AOL spokesperson Jenny Song says roughly 10 million mobile devices have AOL instant messaging as a feature, with 2 billion messages exchanged daily on AIM applications in general. With the widespread use of freeware AIM software, the new service means anyone with access to the software on his computer or mobile device can now place a call directly to the deaf and hard of hearing.

“With this AIM Relay, no one has to have any special device because it’s on your phone, it’s on your computer and that’s what makes this such a really neat concept,” said Tom Wlodkowski, director of accessibility at AOL. “It’s basically leveling the playing field. All of us who are hearing take the telephone for granted, and now we’re bringing the same power of telephone communication to the deaf community through instant messaging.”

Wlodkowski said when the My IP Relay Number service was launched in December 2004, more than 500 deaf people subscribed within the first day and a half of service, but it’s now really a matter of getting the word out.

“Instant messaging in the deaf community has really taken off because it has essentially made instantaneous communication possible,” Wlodkowski said. “Once a deaf person understands that you can give a doctor a local number, a mortgage broker a number and they don’t have to find some special way of reaching you, that’s when the lights go on and people really say, ‘Oh, I get it.'”

There are approximately 28 million deaf and hard of hearing people living in the U.S., according to the National Association for the Deaf.

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