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Text-phone access for deaf now as easy as 7-1-1

February 13, 1999|By ANDREA ROWLAND

A new telephone service will make calling within Maryland a little less complicated for people with disabilities.

Bell Atlantic Corp. and the state-run Maryland Relay Center announced last week the start of the 7-1-1 system, which will replace the 11-digit number that deaf, hard of hearing and speech disabled people had to dial to gain access to a text-based telephone system.

Maryland callers wishing to reach parties out-of-state will continue to call the relay numbers for those states.

Maryland is the first state in the continental U.S. to offer the 7-1-1 service. Hawaii has had the service since 1997.

"7-1-1 enables people with hearing impairments to connect with Maryland Relay without going through a long, involved process," said Norman H. Bassett, coordinator of the Washington County Office on Disability Issues.

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"I think it's a long time coming," he said.

Before the new system took effect on Feb. 3, Maryland callers had to dial 1-800-735-2258 to connect with the text-based system, known as TTY.

Such a system enables people with hearing or speech disabilities to communicate via telephone through text messages. Relay centers across the country connect the TTY user with the standard phone user.

Trained operators read text messages, relay them to the people called, type verbal responses, and send them back to the caller.

The TTY system will remain the same. The 7-1-1 calls will be answered by voice instead of TTY tones.

"This is fantastic. It's going to be a whole lot easier," said Harold Bible, director of Deafnet Washington County. "Hopefully, the whole country will follow," he said.

The existing 1-800 number will remain in effect, and is required for out-of-state callers, said Sandra Arnette, spokesperson for Bell Atlantic.

She said Maryland will serve as a model for other states in the Bell Atlantic network, which controls telephone lines from Maine to Virginia.

Bell Atlantic will send a notice about the new service in this month's bill.

Western Maryland Coalition Administrator Peggy Martin agreed the new service will make calling easier for people with disabilities, but said she was concerned about the advertising aspect of the 7-1-1 campaign.

"It should be a really good thing as long as we can get the PR out correctly," said Martin. "It looks like the bulk of the publicity will be in the phone bills."

Martin said people might assume they have to dial both numbers in-state.

Nancy Seidman, public relations coordinator for Maryland Relay, said ads will be geared toward letting people know that the new service is available.

One ad begins, "It's not the name of a popular convenience store, though it's very convenient. It's not the time, or even a calendar date, though it's available around the clock, every day."

Seidman said television commercials will air on WJLA, Channel 7 in Washington, D.C., and other ABC-affiliated stations through March, and print advertisements will run in the Maryland Weekly edition of the Washington Post.

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