While many parents do not get it, text messaging is a form of communication that is here to stay, and for the deaf community, it has turned into an essential staple of giving and receiving information. The deaf saw the potential of text messaging shortly after it was first introduced in the late 1990s.
Alabama School for the Deaf principal Paul Millard said, “Some people here wanted to try it, but we didn’t have the (cellular) tower.”
Judith Gilliam, a board member of the Alabama Association of the Deaf and the National Association of the Deaf, said, “I remember a group of deaf people going to the council in Talladega begging for a tower to be set up there.”
It is no wonder the deaf community fought hard to have this service in the area. It effectively made the TTD (telecommunications device for the deaf) service of transmitting text through telephone lines instantly obsolete and lessened the need for a human relay operator.
The TTD systems connected to a telephone, and older versions could pass for a small piece of furniture due to their large size.
Rann Gordon, the director of services for the deaf at E.H. Gentry, said, “In the past we would call deaf people through the TTD, and we’d have to wait and wait and wait and didn’t know if they were home or not. Now with the BlackBerry, it saves time. We rarely use the (landline) phone or the TTDs.”
Matt Kochie, the assistive technology trainer for the deaf at E.H. Gentry, said, “Comparing now and 10 years ago, if there was no pager you’d have to go over to a friend’s house. With gas prices so high now, you can’t afford going back and forth.”
Gilliam said it also allows the deaf to be better informed about emergency situations, such as severe weather, because they can get alerts by cellular phone.
Text messaging has also changed dynamics in the work place.
“In the past (fellow AIDB employees) would have to use the paging system which would say, ‘Rann Gordon, go up front, or go to your office.’ I wouldn’t know anything until people would tell me, ‘They’re calling you. They’re calling you,’” Gordon said.
Millard added, “If someone is going to be sick or late for work, boom, you can contact (a substitute) right there. Deaf parents who are worried about their child, again, it’s right there. Deaf supervisors now have instantaneous communication with their hearing staff members. It’s really empowered so many people.”
Text messaging is also useful to contact a bunch of people at once, rather than one by one, to give details about a meeting time or place for a group or club.
Millard said he believes text messaging and new technology have bridged the gap between the deaf and hearing community, especially with hearing parents who have deaf children.
An unexpected benefit has been an improvement in writing skills for the deaf.
“I think that it has helped the deaf gained self-esteem in their ability to communicate,” Gilliam said. “Deaf people hate writing because English is not their primary language. I think texts have had a lot of influence on the current education of the deaf. It motivates communication and tests proper sentence structure.”
In addition, it has some benefit in teaching phonics to the deaf, Gilliam pointed out. When people use abbreviations, such as “gr8” for the word “great,” deaf people have to learn they sound the same in order to make sense of the abbreviation.
Beyond text messaging, social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter allow the deaf to more easily share their opinions and life events with both their hearing and deaf friends.
“I use Facebook to keep in touch with old friends from New Jersey and New York and college,” Kochie said. “It’s easier to talk to people about different events and about whatever is going on.”
The next generation of deaf communication may be even more exciting. The new iPhone and iPad technology has an option much like videoconferencing where people can see to whom they are speaking. The deaf can be miles away from each and still carry on a conversation by signing.
Millard said he understood the iPad could have up to an eight-person conversation.
With communication technology continuing its rapid evolution, it is an exciting time for everyone in the deaf community and for those outside of it, too.
“Since (text messaging) was exposed to our school, the kids say, ‘I can’t live without it.’ You talk about the influence on the deaf community – that may have been established and really become popular – but now you look at how that has changed the lives of the hearing community. My son would prefer to text than talk on the telephone,” Millard said.
Unlike some parents, Millard definitely understands the appeal of text messaging for his son.
Contact Brandon Fincher at email@example.com.