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California launches first U.S. visually assisted speech-to-speech relay phone service

June 27, 2012

In May the Public Utilities Commission began providing a service that enables callers with speech disabilities to interact with communication assistants using webcam or videophone with Skype. The communication assistant understands the caller better by seeing mouth movements, facial expression and gestures. According to Fred Nisen, DRC attorney, who beta-tested the service, "The person making the call has much more independence and creativity in expression, with the confidence that it is now easier for the communication assistant to grasp the messages and re-voice them to the person receiving the call."

Read descriptions of the system and what you need to know to get started.

Interview

1) How much does it cost to put the package together for a user? What does a webcam cost for, example?

Skype can be downloaded for free (at least for now). Many computers come with a webcam. External webcams cost as little as $25. For example, see http://shopping.yahoo.com/webcams/;_ylt=AmIW1UnBpEfSrpc_8cjWC254D8Y

2) What does it mean that the PUC is putting out this announcement? What is its role?

The PUC contract with and pay the providers. They have to approve the service. The deaf and disabled telecommunications program (DDTP) administers the relay services and makes recommendations.

3) Has the system been tested? Are there any consumer groups recommending this?

Seven people beta-tested it, including me, at different stages. We all found it to be very helpful. Also, the communication assistants (CAs) found it easier to understand people with speech disabilities. I, personally, find that the IM in Skype (which currently only one of the providers has the capability to access) is extraordinarily helpful for those who can type.

Besides DRC, through my work, the only other group supporting this is Speech Communication Assistance by Telephone, Inc. (SCT) run by Bob Segalman, who used to work at DOR and founded Speech-to-Speech.

It makes communications easier because it is 2-3 times easier to understand somebody, with many people who have many speech disabilities, if you can see them and look at their face and gestures.