1997 Conference Proceedings

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Technology and Society: Implementation of the Acoustic Telephone Coupler by the Deaf Community in America

Harry G. Lang
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology
52 Lomb Memorial Drive
Rochester, NY 14623 TTY: 716 475 6777
FAX: 716 475 5693

"Deaf people, generally, have been an oppressed minority...looked down upon by hearing people, and generally left alone to their own devices, and look at [what] we have accomplished with one of our own devices!"

Robert Haig Weitbrecht, 1971

The invention of the acoustic telephone coupler was a major breakthrough in telecommunications for deaf people. The story of the TTY represents the first time in history that deaf people took the leadership in developing and diffusing a technology that greatly enhanced their lives and employment opportunities. With a grant from the National Science Foundation and support from Telecommunications for the Deaf, Inc. and Dr. James Marsters, one of the founding fathers of the technology, historical research was conducted for several years for the purpose of writing a book on this subject. This paper will summarize the key "science and society" issues which are emphasized in the slide presentation about the TTY technology implemented by and for deaf people.

There is good reason to wonder why a visual telephone had not been offered to deaf people before Robert H. Weitbrecht, James C. Marsters, and Andrew Saks began their work together in 1964. As wonderful an invention the voice telephone was in providing a major communications link in society it was indeed exclusionary from the deaf person's perspective. In June, 1876 at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone, a remarkable invention which would have a major impact on society over the years to come. Bell had spent many years attempting to enhance the lives of deaf people. Teaching was his first love, and it remained so throughout his life, regardless of the fame and fortune the telephone brought him. Bell once explained that the telephone had developed from an initial effort to "render visible to the eye of the deaf the vibrations of the air that affect our ears as sounds." Thus, there is a touch of irony that the telephone derived from these experiments unintentionally became a major problem for deaf persons, placing them at a distinct disadvantage in long distance communication.

Historians have for a long time discussed the political, cultural, and economic factors that come into play with scientific factors as a technology is developed. Values influence the creativity of inventors and their beliefs and habits of thinking are reflected in their scientific activity. In the course of the past 30 years, many writers have extolled the promise of technology for deaf people. Undoubtedly, the TTY and the television captioning decoder are two especially remarkable technologies which have fulfilled this promise in part. But until relatively recent times there has been a collective negative impact of telecommunications technology. The introduction of radio in the early 1920s vastly improved long- distance communication of news around the world and introduced a new form of entertainment which deaf people were unable to enjoy. A few years later, in 1926, Bell System scientists H.M. Stoller and A.S. Pfannstiehl designed the first machine to synchronize sound in motion picture films. The advent of "talkies" meant the elimination of subtitles from the silent movies. Gone was the great pleasure for deaf people who had gathered at local theaters for years. Later, television remained inaccessible to deaf viewers for decades. Until open and closed captions were introduced in the 1970s only the video portion could be enjoyed. Thus, as society changed its long distance communication patterns, "advances" in technology for hearing people increasingly isolated deaf persons. Meanwhile, the rehabilitation model brought o n by the world wars placed a focus on individuals with disabilities as subjects of care and "impairments" as something in need of fixing. Opportunities for employment were limited by inaccessibility to equitable work conditions. Nowadays, with telephone relay services and the widespread use of telecommunications devices, this dilemma has been partly resolved. But deaf people had to wait far too long for a breakthrough in telecommunications technology that would help, rather than hinder, their assimilation in society.

Imagine how different the lives of deaf people would be today had we a century of telephone access behind us. From a purely technical point of view, this was indeed possible. In the 1890s, "machines for writing by electricity" attracted the attention of several inventors, among them Elisha Gray, who had lost the patent for the telephone to Alexander Graham Bell. Gray introduced the "teleautograph" at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. Messages written at one end of the wire were reproduced automatically on the other end. The device excited deaf communities in several countries. Unfortunately, attitudes of "businessmen" having significant influence on the telephone industry at that time discouraged further use of the invention. Why was there no angry reaction on the part of deaf people to this disappointing news? One reason is that there was no organized advocacy movement as we enjoy today. The printed communication of the teletypewriter had made such inroads by 1893 that personal script (longhand writing) was considered taboo. By the turn of the century there were more than two million telephones in the US, but only a small fraction were found in residential environments. Most telephones were being used by large and small businesses. Thus, at this time in history, even the larger society of hearing people were struggling for access to this technology. A second reason for the lack of reaction was an economic one. As early as 1882, a residential telephone in New York cost $150 a year. Since most deaf persons were in low- paying manual occupations at this time, this was far beyond what they could afford. Yet even if these conditions were improved, there were many distracting social factors which preoccupied deaf leaders at the turn of the century, especially the emotional debate over communication methods.

Perhaps, through its evolution, the TTY has become a social product, but in its conception it was the deaf physicist Robert H. Weitbrecht's individual trenchant probing into radioteletype and the potential of adapting it as a visual telephone system that introduced the technology. And it was the stubborn dedication to battle social inequity on the part of Weitbrecht, Marsters, and Saks that brought the technology into deaf people's homes. For many years the needs of profoundly deaf persons were social problems to be ignored. Telephone companies paid lipservice with gadgetry and promises of new technology (such as the video telephone, for example, which was demonstrated repeatedly to deaf people since 1930).

A variety of inexpensive telephone gadgets was also available, most requiring deaf people to use a code. There were many problems associated with them. First, they were primarily for use by deaf people who had intelligible speech. Second, noise and accidental utterances caused a great deal of confusion. And, third, the conversation was often reduced to a game of "twenty questions." By 1964, there were more than 85 million telephones in the United States and Canada and, despite the existence of these gadgets and machines, there were probably not more than a few dozen deaf people using them with telephones on a regular basis. Weitbrecht, Marsters, and Saks appropriately judged all of these telephone devices available as impractical.

The story of the TTY is a powerful one which illustrates many creative strategies developed by deaf people in the long struggle for equity and access, including the use of deaf leaders as gatekeepers who helped communicate the importance of the technological breakthrough, the formation of local telecommunications advocacy groups across the country, and the coordination of a national network through the Teletypewriters for the Deaf, Inc. (TDI), now known as Telecommunications for the Deaf, Inc. In their quest for a reasonably-priced TTY. Marsters, Saks, and Weitbrecht held numerous meetings with AT&T officials, but failed to spark interest in the manufacturing and provision of TTYs for deaf consumers. Yet, at the same time, thousands of retired AT&T workers assisted deaf people in reconditioning the older Baudot TTYs. Such volunteerism was appreciated but not adequate. A new TTY was sorely needed. The battles with AT&T went on for decades and it was not until 1976 that the company finally offered a TTY to deaf people. Meanwhile, deaf people established a community of volunteers, which included radio amateurs, the Telephone Pioneers of America, Western Union workers, and community service organizations as services were established for reporting news and weather, for emergency assistance, and many other critical needs. As the volunteerism provided momentum to the movement, the civil rights activism of the 1970s and federal and state legislation in the 1980s laid a foundation for further change. These technological and sociological revolutions empowered deaf people toward further self determination and self advocacy. The story of the TTY portrayed in this slide presentation begins with the design of an electric circuit, the Phonetype acoustic telephone coupler, and progresses through several decades of struggle for access.

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