Internet Becomes a Lifeline for the Deaf
NY Times 2/13/98
Like many recent college graduates, Sarah Snyder surfs the Web for
job prospects and sends e-mail queries to potential employers. But,
unlike her classmates, Snyder relies on the Internet more than most
That's because Snyder is deaf, making it difficult for her to use the
telephone even with her hearing aids. Instead of calling universities
to learn the availability of the disability coordinator position she
seeks, she finds it easier to do her job research online and set up
interviews via e-mail.
"A telephone can be awkward and downright frustrating when it comes
to important calls where I don't want to misinterpret the other
caller's words," Snyder, a 1996 Princeton University graduate who
lives in Washington, said in an e-mail interview. "E-mail, now that's
a wonder in itself! I can now communicate with far more friends and
business contacts without any hesitations or fears of
Snyder is among the thousands of deaf people who have benefited from
e-mail and the Web. Though many of the 28 million deaf and
hard-of-hearing Americans don't have access to computers and modems,
those that do find they can reach out to family, friends, employers
and others without using tedious teletype and relay services.
Teletype machines, invented in 1964, require people to type their
conversations, while the relay services of the last decade use
operators as intermediaries between the deaf and the hearing. Many
deaf people find both methods slow and frustrating.
The Internet, whose developer was hard of hearing, has
revolutionized communication for the deaf. It has allowed them to
converse in a mainstream medium with those that can hear and those
"It's a great equalizer in that everyone, hearing and deaf, uses the
same technology," Vinton G. Cerf, senior vice president for Internet
architecture and engineering at MCI Communications Corp. in Reston,
Va., said in a telephone interview. Cerf co-developed the
architecture and protocols for the Internet.
Surrounded by computers' whirring fans and noisy motors in the early
1970s, Cerf, 54, had a hard time hearing technical information over
the telephone. He found it a "relief" that he could use e-mail to
exchange programs and data.
More than 20 years later, Cerf's wife, Sigrid, used the Internet and
e-mail to research cochlear implants, electrodes placed near the
auditory nerve, that would restore her hearing in 1996. After
tracking the progress of several people with implants, she decided
to contact, using a relay service, Johns Hopkins University. No one
returned her calls.
"So she sent an e-mail to the doctor doing it and got a response the
next day," Cerf said, laughing.
Other deaf people are turning to chat rooms and listservs to discuss
implants and other issues. Tilak Ratnanather
(www.bme.jhu.edu/~tratnana), a deaf postdoctoral fellow at Johns
Hopkins University in Baltimore, was among the early proponents of
the online medium and has watched it grow in popularity among the
deaf. In 1988, he spoke about the Internet to skeptical audiences at
conferences for the deaf. A decade later, the 34-year-old is using
the Internet to publicize deaf conventions.
Chat rooms and discussion groups ease deaf teen-agers' contacts with
their peers. In 1994, the Washington, D.C.-based Alexander Graham
Bell Association for the Deaf (www.agbell.org) developed the PC Pals
Teen Network. The teen-agers discuss everything from deaf characters
in books and movies to American Sign Language to dating and driving
on the network's bulletin board and in the chat room.
One 13-year-old English girl recently logged onto the network
looking for advice on her new hearing aids.
"She was very shy in the social environment," Kelly Mankin, a chat
room moderator in Washington, said in an e-mail interview. "[She]
wanted to know how to tell her friends about her new hearing aids.
But the hardest thing for her was to wear them. She just didn't want
to deal with it."
Reflecting on his teen-age years, Ken Levinson said he would have
enjoyed such a service. Levinson, who lost most of his hearing to
meningitis at age 2 but regained it with a cochlear implant in 1990,
recalled how self-conscious he felt calling his friends while they
were in high school.
"The phone was a source of fear for me," Levinson, 50, executive
director of Manhattan's Children's Hearing Institute, said in a
recent interview. "I could have communicated on e-mail for a while
until the ice was broken."
Snyder credits e-mail with empowering her to become active in
Princeton's yearbook and commencement committee.
"The ability to access e-mail on my own time and knowing that I can
express myself freely and at length has given me a confidence and
drive that I highly doubt I could have developed even just a decade
ago," she said.