Jewish World Review
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) For the deaf like Niesluchowski and Karen Hager, advances in wireless communications represent a breakthrough perhaps more significant than the text teletypewriter - or TTY - which first allowed the deaf to talk on a phone more than two decades ago. The only drawback: in order to talk, users were tethered to a bulky machine.
With wireless, the deaf can use the equivalent of a cell phone - a wireless pager with a small keyboard that fits into a shirt pocket.
"Without a doubt," said Niesluchowski, a foreman for a general contractor who lives in Joliet, wireless has allowed him to communicate more freely and more often.
The little noticed development is changing the lives of thousands of people while creating a profitable niche for Motient Corp., a Lincolnshire, Ill.-based wireless network operator.
Motient's wireless data network, started more than a decade ago by Motorola Corp. and IBM Corp., focuses almost exclusively on business customers. But giving deaf people a wireless lifeline is a welcome plus.
When he is at home, Niesluchowski regularly uses a TTY and personal computer to communicate, but when he leaves, he responds quickly through his pager.
"I use it a lot to let other people know in advance (when he'll be late for an appointment)," Niesluchowski said in an e-mail. "Also, in case of emergency, it can be very helpful."
Niesluchowski's pager is supplied by Wynd Communications Corp. of San Luis Obispo, Calif. About six years ago, Wynd start supplying the technology to the deaf, said Joe Karp, Wynd's marketing director.
Once a supplier of data technology to businesses, Wynd now focuses full time on deaf customers. "We took some units to a Deaf Expo in Los Angeles in 1997, and it was extremely popular," he said.
Wynd uses BlackBerry pagers from Research In Motion Ltd., a Canadian firm. Wynd modified the software so the BlackBerries can transmit to TTY machines as well as sending messages to other BlackBerry units. It can send e-mail to PCs or send text messages to cell phones. It can send a fax, too.
"We're getting a momentum with this weaving itself into the deaf community much as TTY did," said Karp. Through the Automobile Association of America, for instance, Wynd makes it easier for the deaf to get emergency roadside assistance.
The company has thousands of deaf customers, he said, but the potential is much larger: an estimated 28 million Americans are deaf or hard of hearing.
Another customer is Hager, a medical lab technician from Round Lake Beach, Ill.. She uses her pager to keep in touch with family members and friends. It even allows her to organize everyday tasks.
"I am secretary of a bowling organization," she said in an e-mailed message, "and bowlers can get in touch with me whenever they need to."
Hager also exchanges text messages with her daughter on her cell phone.
Wynd advertises in deaf-oriented publications and relies heavily upon trade shows for the deaf.
"We have all deaf individuals who use sign language at our booths," said Karp. "They're selling our services to a community they are a part of."
While cell phones with data service could also be used by the deaf to transmit messages and e-mail, Karp said they pose little competition to his firm's focused approach.
"Large wireless companies selling text-based services sometimes come to deaf trade shows," he said. "Typically they send guys who aren't deaf. They have large booths with pictures of people using cell phones and pagers, and they bring an interpreter to communicate.
"These are competitors we're not concerned about. They're not sensitive to deaf culture."
The Motient network, which transmits the messages from BlackBerry units, is delighted that Wynd is marketing this service, said Dan Croft, Motient's senior marketing vice president.
"We focus on providing secure data solutions to businesses," he said. "UPS is our largest customer and IBM is second. We don't do any marketing or advertising to consumers. We aren't experts at that.
"So this service for the deaf is a different experience for us. It's fascinating to see these units sell at deaf trade shows. It is very quiet, and yet people are furiously at work, buying and selling."
Motient's network covers just about every major market in the country and because it carries data only, it tends to be more reliable than wireless phone networks.
Even so, there can be dead spots so that a handheld unit does not get a signal. It will not send or receive a message until you move to a spot where the signal makes contact, said Niesluchowski.
"It is not real reliable," he said. "It depends on the area where you are sending."
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