Verizon Expands Enhanced Sign Language Service to Deaf or Hearing-Impaired Customers in Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island

NEW YORK - Verizon customers in three Northeast states who are deaf or hearing impaired can now use American Sign Language and videophones to communicate directly with the company about service-related issues.

Verizon's Center for Customers with Disabilities first made this customer service support available last year in Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. Verizon has since expanded the support to Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island, enabling deaf or hearing-impaired customers in those states to communicate directly via videophone with a representative in the Verizon center who is proficient in using American Sign Language (ASL) to handle orders, change services or answer questions.

[Note: For a video demonstration and recorded comments from Claude Stout, executive director of Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Inc. (TDI), a national consumer advocacy organization based in Silver Spring, Md., log on to http://newscenter2.verizon.com/kit/broadband-video-link/.]

"Our deaf or hearing-impaired customers love this service because it gives them an avenue to communicate directly with us and not have to call using an interpreter or a relay service," said Kimberly Grenda, an American Sign Language service representative in the Verizon Center for Customers with Disabilities. "The expansion of customer service support in ASL via videophone will allow Verizon to better connect to our customers."

Most video services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing involve an interpreter who relays messages between those individuals and the hearing parties they communicate with.  A videophone with a high-speed Internet connection and a monitor, used either one-on-one or with an interpreter, is preferred by many American Sign Language users when they want to communicate by telephone.

Heidi Reed, commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (MCDHH), said, "MCDHH commends this enhancement to Verizon's customer services for our many constituents who use American Sign Language. This addition in service delivery reflects Verizon's leadership role in meeting the needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing customers. All of us at MCDHH look forward to continued excellence in communication access services for residents of Massachusetts."

People can have a video conversation in ASL with a videophone - a set-top box with either a built-in camera connected to a broadband router, a free-standing desk unit with a small screen or a Web cam supported by a computer and appropriate software. Each equipment option requires a high-speed Internet connection to receive good picture quality; lower-bandwidth services will result in pixilation and low frame rates on most products. 

ASL is a unique language that incorporates hand gestures and facial expressions, and provides a more expressive and fulfilling telecommunications experience than either TTY (teletype) equipment or relay services.

"Due to the widespread availability and affordability of broadband, more and more deaf or hard-of-hearing consumers have a videophone," said Grenda. "We believe the videophone option gives customers a simpler, more user-friendly way to interact with Verizon for their telecommunications needs."

Verizon customer service representatives can recommend services and equipment that make communications easier for people with various disabilities. For example, Verizon offers phones that have photos on the buttons to help people with cognitive difficulties, and phones that operate by remote control for people with physical disabilities.  

Some customers with disabilities can get an exemption from charges for calls made to 411 or for operator-assisted calls.  Verizon can provide its bill statements in large print or Braille at no extra charge.  The company also produces a quarterly newsletter (www.verizon.com/forwardaccess; please enter a phone number or zip code to access the file) filled with news and information for its customers with disabilities.

While Verizon does not currently sell videophones, the center supports sales of other equipment to help people with disabilities. [NOTE: See accompanying list of available equipment.]

The Verizon Center for Customers with Disabilities, which is celebrating its 16th anniversary this year, provides customer support to people who are deaf or hard of hearing, blind, or have vision, mobility, speech or cognitive disabilities. There are two such centers, one in Marlboro, Mass., the other in Oxnard, Calif.

When the Marlboro center opened in 1992, its staff of six representatives handled approximately 4,000 calls a year. Today, the staff has grown to more than 100 representatives who now handle more than 700,000 calls annually.

For more information about the Verizon Center for Customers with Disabilities, consumers can call 1-800-974-6006 (voice/TTY).  Consumers needing customer service support can call via videophone at either 1-800-974-6006 or 1-888-974-6006.

Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE:VZ), headquartered in New York, is a leader in delivering broadband and other wireline and wireless communication innovations to mass market, business, government and wholesale customers.  Verizon Wireless operates America's most reliable wireless network, serving more than 67 million customers nationwide.  Verizon's Wireline operations include Verizon Business, which delivers innovative and seamless business solutions to customers around the world, and Verizon Telecom, which brings customers the benefits of converged communications, information and entertainment services over the nation's most advanced fiber-optic network.  A Dow 30 company, Verizon employed a diverse workforce of approximately 232,000 as of the end of the first quarter 2008 and last year generated consolidated operating revenues of $93.5 billion.  For more information, visit www.verizon.com.


About Videophone Use

Many deaf or heard-of-hearing customers are already very familiar with videophones, using them to work with video relay services to communicate with hearing persons with the help of an interpreter who translates messages to and from American Sign Language (ASL), or for direct communication with others who know and use ASL. Some computers equipped with the proper software and Web cameras can be used, as well.  Videophones can be hooked up either to a regular TV or to a PC monitor [http://www.dlink.com/products/?sec=1&pid=293] or can be desktop units complete with a small screen [http://www.dlink.com/products/?sec=1&pid=302].

For effective video conferencing communication at good frame rates, customers need a high-speed line with a downstream speed of at least 256 kilobits per second or higher.  Verizon's High Speed Internet services start at speeds of up to 768 Kbps and range up to 50 Mbps on FiOS Internet connections. 

Phones are simply dialed as usual, though with some equipment setups the phone number dialed actually represents a computer IP address

Customers have options regarding the hardware they use.  Phones made by companies like D-Link can be purchased for about $150 to about $300 depending on the model and connection type. But other models by other makers are available free to users of various video relay services, which are publicly funded under Federal Communication Commission requirements.

Products Available From Verizon for Consumers With Disabilities

Big Button Corded Feature Phone (ITT2400).  Provides one-touch photo-memory buttons (pictures can be inserted behind the buttons) and flashing visual ring indicator. Braille on buttons and hearing-aid compatible.

Ameriphone Amplified Corded Telephone (AMEP300).  Allows for quick and easy dialing of pre-programmed telephone numbers by simply pressing a button (pictures can be inserted behind the buttons). Phone comes with adjustable amplification and bright ringer flasher handset; hearing aid T-Coil-compatible

Amplified phone that has a jumbo keypad w/Braille (JV-35).  Jumbo-sized, high-contrast buttons with Braille.  Electronic voice repeats numbers as dialed. Amplification boosts incoming sound with adjustable tone control for better clarity of incoming voice. Also has audio jack for use with assistive listening devices.

Talking Caller ID 99 Name and Number (CV9900CW).  Uses patented VoiceAnnounce technology to announce calls over its built-in speaker or over the handset of a cordless phone. This gives Caller ID subscribers the ability to screen calls without the interruptions and inconvenience imposed by traditional, display-only Caller ID equipment. 

Amplified 2.4Ghz Cordless Phone (CL600).  Backlit Caller ID, powerful 2.4Ghz technology for extended range. Amplifies incoming voice up to 30 db with adjustable volume. Adjustable tone for crystal-clear clarity. Extra-loud ringer in base.  Audio jack for use with assistive listening devices.

Portable TTY machine (751075).  A dual-purpose TTY that is lightweight, portable and full-featured, it connects to TSB-121, which makes it compatible for mobile/cell phone and for many cordless phones. Built-in microphone and large display enables hands-free voice carry over (VCO) calls. Optional speakers or headset enables hearing carry over (HCO) calls. The machine comes with 68-key keyboard with one-touch capability for many common phrases.

Clarity 500 big button amplified telephone (W500).  An ergonomically optimized, corded, amplified telephone with a Caller ID display. This phone enables people with a hearing loss to hear clearly and communicate easily.  High-frequency sounds are amplified more than the low-frequency sounds so that words are not just louder, but clearer and easier to understand.

A voice carry over corded phone (751330).  Also known as the "the speak and then read phone," it allows the user to speak to the callers while reading their words on a built-in screen through a toll-free relay service. It is easy to use, and no typing is required. It comes with a powerful amplifier to make the incoming sound 30 times louder.

Remote control hands-free speakerphone (RC200).  This product can be accessed by remote switches. The RC-200 comes with a "mouse-style" remote control for memory scanning, dialing and answering from up to 40 feet away.