When my husband asked me two years ago if we should return our beloved teletypewriter (TTY) to our phone company, I quickly said
no, no. I grew attached to it despite having other accessible technologies to reach out to people everyday.
What is a teletypewriter (TTY)?
Our TTY has a keyboard with a screen and a printer on top. When I type in a message, it comes up on the screen in green letters, and the message is then sent via the telephone connection to the other person with a TTY. I then wait for their reply. Each time either caller sends a message we also type in GA, which stands for
go ahead. This allows either of us to know when we have finished typing our message.
Reaching out to deaf friends
I was only 14 years old when my older Deaf sister came home excitedly to tell our parents about the new TTY invention. My parents were amazed but hesitatant to help my sister pay for it. Our family eventually bought one for $700 from the USA.
Before long, in the span of a few frenzied years after my family had got a TTY, almost every Deaf person had one. I remember feeling so liberated not having to beg my mum or sister to phone one of my friends. I used to nag them in spoken English to telephone my friends so we could meet up.
I could now finally join the club of long phone chats at our home. My mum spent hours talking on the telephone with her sister, whilst I spent hours on the TTY. My mum would even defend me when my hearing siblings nagged me to get off the TTY because they wanted to make their own telephone calls.
While it was amazing to have a TTY, I still couldn't reach out to people who didn't have one.
Opening the lines
Some time after the introduction of TTYs, the lines of communication between Deaf and hearing people were also opened. Deaf Societies set up relay services and eventually, and with a lot of lobbying, there was government funding to set up the National Relay Service (NRS).
With the NRS, a third person, or a relay person, is used to communicate between the two callers. A deaf person types a phone number to the NRS where it is picked up and called by a relay officer. The officer relays any typed message from the Deaf person to the hearing person on the phone. The hearing person then talks back to the relay officer who then teletypes the message to the Deaf person.
In 1999 when I was living in Britain, I got our first portable mobile which also had a TTY function. It had a screen with a keyboard to type in messages. It was about the size of a brick but lighter and I was happy that I could travel with it.
It took about five years for me to grow used to my Nokia mobile which became smaller as the years went by. I used my TTY less and less, but was still attached to it given that I could access the NRS through it.
Over time technology just got better and better. Close friends started using mobiles for text messages and stopped using the TTY. For long conversations, Skype became available and I was now having conversations with my friends in sign language through a video connection over the internet. Today I also call hearing people by using the Video Relay Service (VRS) which uses an interpreter in a studio to translate the conversation between Deaf people and hearing people.
NRS SMS service
In 2013 the NRS introduced the fantastic SMS NRS service for mobile phones or iPads. I now type my side of the conversation as a series of text messages on my mobile phone. They are then read or texted by a relay person to my caller. The responses from my caller are typed back to me by the relay officer and appear on my phone
Now I can call anyone, anywhere and anytime on my mobile phone. When I recently travelled to Tasmania for a workshop, I was thrilled to call the NRS SMS to book a taxi a few times. I no longer had to ask the hotel receptionist to order a taxi. The new service also means I save about $200 per year by not paying a line rental to our phone company.
Today I feel ready to let the TTY go. For a Deaf person the SMS NRS is a significant step into the real world of equal opportunities. Just like the TTY was all those years ago.