New tech improves communication for employees with loss of hearing

The Library of Congress, which houses a collection of more than 134 million items in more than 450 languages, is using video relay technology to embrace one more form of communication — sign language.

The library has launched an initiative to allow deaf and hard-of-hearing employees who use American Sign Language (ASL) to better communicate with both their hearing and deaf colleagues through new video relay technology.

Officials say that the technology represents a significant improvement from the older TTY systems.

“If the technology is cumbersome, people are not as likely to fully communicate,” said Eric Eldritch, access programs manager at the library's office of workforce diversity. “This technology is leveling the playing field and allowing people to communicate as naturally as possible between two languages that used to be mutually exclusive.”

Eldritch said the library has been working on the initiative for years because it had to be mindful of hacking and security concerns associated with videoconferencing and peer-to-peer technology.

Unlike other solutions that the library tried out, the system that was chosen does not have a programmable computer, thereby alleviating concerns about hacking normally associated with peer-to-peer videoconferencing systems, officials said.

The system's equipment was supplied free by Sorenson Communications, a video relay services company that is compensated from a fund established by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Using the new system, deaf or hard-of-hearing employees are either able to communicate directly with each other or transmit their message in ASL to an interpreter, who in turn relays the message in English to a hearing colleague via a standard phone line.

Library officials say they are hopeful that other agencies will pick up the private/public partnership model as an example of how to expand access.

“We hope other agencies will see our partnership with private industry, follow our example and take advantage of this federally funded service,” said Doug Meick, program manager in Information Technology Services for the Library’s Assistive Technology Demonstration Center.

Eldritch said 17 library employees will use the service.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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