One of the things that made my life as a deaf person easier was some tremendous technological “toys.” Today, I wanted to share my experiences with the TTY (teletypewriter).
(TTY, not TTD, is the culturally preferred term used by most Deaf and HoH users.)
We have gotten so used to different and often quicker, more straightforward modes of communication that some of us only use our TTYs as a doorstop or to remind us of the old days. Who could blame us for wanting the best communication gizmos and gadgets? Mine looks pretty ancient when I look at it now.
History of the TTY
Before TTYs, deaf people had to go in person to see if friends were home, make appointments, or do anything hearing people did effortlessly by phone. For Deaf people, TTYs became a tool for change. TTYs made telephone calls accessible to the Deaf.
Robert Weitbrecht, a Deaf electronic scientist, is credited with the invention of the TTY in 1964. It was in the late 1970s and early 1980s that TTYs became mainstream.
Recollections of My Early Communication Journey
I know my parents were playing a frantic game of catch-up when it came to communication and language development after finding out I lost my deafness when I was six months old due to a fever. They worked with the village to give me the tools to succeed. The TTY was one of them.
For many years during my childhood, the fact that I had to go to places in person added time and stress to the plan, but it was the reality of my disability that I had learned to accept.
I depended on hearing family members, friends, and neighbors to make telephone calls for me. Receiving the TTY was the dawn of my independence. It was an indescribable feeling!
I received my first TTY when I was in 5th grade. I still remember the day I got it and how excited I was to call my best friend from school. Because the TTY technology was not portable, my best friend and I had to agree on when we would be at our respective desks waiting for the call to start.
The equipment and set-up were free. It was provided by the village of Schaumburg, where I grew up. I immediately placed my first call from my bedroom desk that night. After a few rings went by, I could feel my anxiety bubbling up to the surface.
I thought, “What if my best friend forgot? What if he is not in the same room to see the flashing lights? What if he does not answer?”
Thankfully, he answered.
I was told I should let the phone ring ten or more times to allow the Deaf or HoH person enough time to see and respond to the flashing light. Nothing like running to the phone! We had to be in eye contact with the device.
When I finished saying something and wanted my friend to reply, I would type “GA,” which means “Go Ahead.” When I finished my conversation, I would type “SK,” which means “Stop Keying”. This was considered part of TTY etiquette. I could not “leap-frog” conversations rather than wait to take turns talking.
Sometimes, I would keep the TTY paper print-out (the modern-day equivalent of Nagish’s saved transcript feature) from the call, and I got excited to collect “receipts” because that made me feel like I had friends I could call. Eventually, I outgrew this, and I would throw them away immediately.
Other times, my parents would flash the upstairs hallway light several times to signal that dinnertime was ready, and I would often stretch out my phone calls and ignore the flashing lights. Ha! Sometimes, they would have had my sister come up and say sternly, “It is time to say goodbye to your friend on the TTY and join Mom and Dad for dinner. Food is getting cold.”
One of the main drawbacks of TTY was that I couldn’t go anywhere if I wanted to make a call. I had to stay tied to my desk. Depending on how long calls would take, I could sometimes sneak downstairs, grab a soda, and come back, and my friend would still be typing. I read the printout to see what I missed.
Not convenient, I know.
Another drawback of the TTY was that it sometimes made conversations impersonal. I remember wanting to ask a girl I liked to a small dance in middle school and realizing I did not want to ask her over the TTY. My mom had told me this was not romantic! Thanks, Mom! I had to ask if she wouldn’t mind taking me on a car ride to her house so I could ask her properly in person.
Relay came in time for my teenage years. I started to engage in occasional lengthy chats by relay. I was unsatisfied with my experiences using Videophone Relay Services (VRS). Conversing with people in my circle via an interpreter felt strange. I avoided sensitive information when I could and dealt with strategizing what I would be okay with revealing on the call with a third party.
Around this time, I also started to use email and instant messaging as substitutes. Who remembers AOL? Today, I use Nagish to place phone calls, knowing they remain private.
In the past, the fastest and most reliable way to contact emergency services was by dialing 9-1-1 through a telephone or TTY hooked up to a regular telephone line; not through a computer, not through the Internet, not through a PDA, not through a videophone, and not through a relay service (VRS).
The argument was that TTY was fail-safe proof against situations like a power outage or the internet being down. You could still reach emergency services in times of crisis.
However, advancements in communication and mobile technology today have made calling 9-1-1 more efficient. For example, when calling 9-1-1 in an emergency, Nagish will share your location with the nearest dispatcher, just like mobile operators are required to do so by law. You would not have to run to the room where the TTY is situated.
Although TTYs remain a practical and accessible solution for individuals who do not have access to available, affordable broadband and internet access, technological advancements have made it possible to make phone calls more accessible for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
While cell phones have taken over, let’s not forget the impact of TTYs. Without TTY's influence, we wouldn't have embraced text messaging to the extent seen today, benefiting everyone, including hearing people too! In many ways, texting has generally made communication more accessible.
As we move forward, I’m eagerly awaiting the next breakthrough in communication technology.
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A passionate and dedicated English teacher who creates an inclusive and engaging learning environment, inspiring students to develop their language skills and cultivate a lifelong love for literature.