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For Deaf, Texting Offers New Portal to World

Quietly over the last decade, phones that make text messaging easy have changed life profoundly for millions of deaf people.

Gone are the days of a deaf person driving to someone's house just to see if they are home. Wives text their deaf husbands in the basement, just as a hearing wife might yell down the stairs. Deaf teens blend in with the mall crowd since they're constantly texting, like everyone else in high school.

Visit the Alabama School for the Deaf, and it's impossible to miss the signs of a revolution that many hearing people simply never noticed. Most everyone at the school in Talladega has at least one handheld texting device, and some have two. At lunch, deaf diners order burgers and fries by text: Punch in the order and show it at the counter.

For the first time, a generation of deaf people can communicate with the world on its terms, using cell phones, BlackBerrys or iPhones, of which some 260 million are in use in the United States.

Matt Kochie, who is deaf, has been texting his entire adult life and has a hard time imagining a day without it.

"We'd have to go back to pen and paper," said Kochie, 29, a teacher at the school. "We'd have to write back and forth to communicate."

Without his handheld, Walter Ripley said he would be back to relying on others for even basic communication. And texting is less work, said Ripley, 54.

"I don't have to depend on hearing people. It makes me a lot more independent. I don't have to ask people to call for me. Asking for people to call can be very frustrating," said Ripley, the school's athletic director.

Kochie and Ripley both used sign language and interpreters during interviews, and deaf people still generally favor signing when talking face-to-face. It's faster and more expressive than pecking out letters on a tiny keyboard.

For generations, deaf people communicated mainly by sign language, gesturing, lip-reading and writing. Telephone lines then allowed for TTY machines that deaf people could use to send printed messages electronically.

"We had one in our house for all of us when I was a teenager, and we would have a line to use it," said Ripley, whose parents and siblings were also deaf.

Machines linked to landlines are still used, as are services involving operators who interpret for the deaf during phone conversations, plus e-mail and video phone calls. But advocates for the deaf say life began changing rapidly after 1999, when the first BlackBerry was introduced by Canadian manufacturer Research in Motion.

Rann Gordon, 54, got his first handheld texting device about seven years ago.

"It has certainly changed my life for the better," said Gordon, who also works at the school. "I can communicate any time I want to. Texting is very fast and very efficient."

Further advances in technology could make communication even easier. Many deaf people are eager to see if the video chat software on the new iPhone 4 works well for sign-language communication, said Daphne Keith, at a Verizon store near the Alabama School for the Deaf. Similarly, an engineering team at the University of Washington is working on a device to transmit American Sign Language video over cell networks.

Meanwhile, deaf people with data-only cell phone plans are already some of Keith's best customers. Several U.S. cellular companies including Verizon Wireless and AT&T offer the plans that cater to the deaf. Verizon, the nation's largest wireless provider, has a text-only plan for $54.99 a month that includes unlimited messaging, web browsing, data usage and e-mail.

"Before I started working here I was ignorant to what was going on. I kind of just overlooked it," said Keith. "But then when I started here I realized ... cell service really is for everybody."

Partly because of the ease of texting for the deaf, a few cities including Cincinnati have adopted texting as a way to accept emergency calls. Deaf and hearing-impaired residents must dial a special number rather than 911, however.

Neither deaf advocacy groups nor cell providers are sure exactly how many of the nation's deaf or hard-of-hearing people use texting.

A survey by a Washington-based trade group, CTIA-The Wireless Association, found that there were 257 million data-capable handheld devices in use in the United States last year, up from 228 million just a year earlier. Of those, some 50 million were smart phones or wireless-enabled PDAs.

Derek Schmitz, who graduated from the Mississippi School for the Deaf this year and is beginning Gallaudet University, said texting has made it easier for deaf people to form friendships with hearing people that would have been difficult just a few years ago.

"I do use texting to communicate with hearing people," said Schmitz, 19. "(Communications) between hearing people and deaf people are improving a lot by texting."

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