Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Say Bye-Bye to TTYs

Written by Allan Friedman, CFILC’s Technologies Manager

Once on the cutting edge of assistive technology, the Teletypewriter (TTY), also known as a Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TDD), is well on its way to the scrap heap of history.
The advent of instant messaging, text messaging and video relay have left the analog technology of baud rates and caller protocols in the dust, providing more direct and much easier communications for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Invented in 1963 by James C. Marsters and Robert Weitbrechtin, TTYs were based on technology first created in the 1870s for stock tickers.  They converted text to audio signals that could be carried across telephone lines, deciphered and displayed on the other end.  TTYs were the first tool that enabled people who are deaf or hard of hearing to communicate with others over the phone.   

But like any technology, TTYs had their limitations.  There had to be one on the other end of a call, meaning calls could only be placed among TTY users.   A person who was deaf could not call someone with hearing unless they had a TTY as well.  This limited the ways a person who is deaf could use a telephone.  They could not, for instance, call a restaurant to make reservations, make a payment over the phone, or call a neighborhood business unless that business happened to have a TTY.  People with hearing, who were infrequent users of TTYs, had to learn a number of protocols like “sk” and “gh” to signal when they finished “talking” and the person on the other end could begin typing. 

Over the last decade as broadband access became more available and mobile phones become “smarter,” instant messaging and texting took off.  For the first time, people who are deaf could communicate directly with anyone on an equal footing. Texting began to level the communications playing field for people with disabilities.  The introduction of video relay services in 2003 added a new dimension, allowing the use of ASL and providing better, more real-time communications than was possible using a TTY.  Skype and other video chat services enable people who are deaf to speak directly to each other in real time, without the delays usually associated with TTY use.

Mobile communications technology continues to become more powerful, faster, and more adaptable.  New applications are expanding their use and, fortuitously, making the devices more universally accessible and usable. There is still a ways to go before everyone can use them, voice activation features are still not quite good enough to handle many speech impairments, but touch screens, text-to-speech and other features are enabling many people with disabilities to communicate more easily and more directly than ever before.

While the technology behind TTYs is history, it will still be several more years before the machines disappear for good.  As we look forward to the communications advances on the horizon, it is important to remember that there are still many people with disabilities on the wrong end of the digital divide who still depend on legacy systems such as TTYs.  We must continue to advocate and push for universal access to technology so these people are not also left behind on the dust heap of history.   But we can look forward to one day soon saying bye-bye to the TTY.

What are your experiences with TTY machines? Please share your thoughts and stories in the comments box below. 

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