Communication for deaf and hard of hearing individuals has changed dramatically with the rapid growth of telecommunication technology. Text telephones (TTY) and amplified phones were their only communication options for 40 years. Now, videophones, smartphones, and instant messaging have replaced the TTY as preferred communication tools for most people.

Devices & Software

  • Videophone: For people who are deaf and hard of hearing, a videophone often takes the place of a telephone.  Videophones are disseminated free to deaf and hard of hearing users. Subscribers are assigned a 10-digit number that conforms to a standard telephone number by an FCC-approved relay service provider rather than a traditional telephone service provider. 

Subscribers can: 1) call another videophone user directly or 2) call a hearing person through a video relay service provider. A hearing person who wants to call a videophone user simply dials the 10-digit number and is automatically routed to a relay operator who then connects the two parties through an interpreter.

  • Open Market Video Calling Software: Because videophones use proprietary software and are only disseminated to deaf and hard of hearing people, many people use Skype, FaceTime, Fuze and other video calling software applications available on today’s market to make calls.
  • Open Market Texting Software: Video “texting,” is becoming increasingly popular with software programs such as YouTube and Glide to “text” a message in sign language.
  • TTY: A TTY, also known as a TDD (Telecommunication Device for the Deaf), is a mechanism about the size of a small typewriter. It allows two individuals to type back and forth over a telephone line in real time. Both parties must either have a TTY or use the relay service to communicate.
  • Sound-Enhancing Telephone Handset Devices: Often referred to as amplified telephones, these devices feature an adjustable volume control switch. Most handsets allow the user to receive the sound directly to a hearing aid.

Telecommunications: amplified telephone, videophone, and video chat apps

Telecommunication Devices

There are three main telecommunication services in use today: 1) video relay service (VRS); 2) TTY relay service (TRS); and 3) video relay interpreting (VRI).  VRS and VRI are video-based services, while TRS is text-driven.

  • Video Relay Service (VRS): VRS is a free subscriber-based service, available 24 hours a day.  A deaf or hard of hearing people can make and receive phone calls through an operator who is a qualified sign language interpreter.  A deaf or hard of hearing subscriber dials the number s/he is calling and is automatically connected with the operator who speaks to the hearing person and signs to the DHH person.  It works the same way with a hearing party who dials the call and is automatically routed to an operator who relays information in voice and sign language.  Calls can be made to and from videophones, smartphones, or computers with video capabilities. 

1. Deaf user signs to the interpreter, 2. Interpreter speaks to the hearing user, 3. Hearing user speaks to interpreter, 4. Interpreter signs to deaf user

  • Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS):  TRS is a free text-based service, reached by dialing 7-1-1.  Operators interpret information between DHH individuals who rely on a text telephone (TTY) or text messaging and hearing people who use standard voice telephones, much like the system described above.
  • Video Relay Interpreting (VRI): VRI is a fee-based service. VRI serves as a means for two or more individuals in the same room to access an interpreter remotely. VRI is sometimes used as an alternative to on-site interpreting (where the interpreter is physically in the room).  It is not effective in all situations, and in some cases can be counterproductive. The Department of Justice notes that VRI will not be effective if the person who is deaf or hard of hearing has difficulty seeing the screen (because it cannot be properly positioned for the DHH person to see (i.e., s/he may be bedridden or cannot be moved. In these circumstances, an on-site interpreter may be required. 

This Quick Tip was adapted from pepnet 2 (pn2) Fast Facts. Funded by the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (Cooperative Agreement #H326D110003).