Please Listen: Barriers should be torn down

With any new technology, it’s always the privileged who are accomodated first, and the rest left to fend for themselves, left to fight against being left behind.  The same goes for the deaf.

Alexander Graham Bell may have invented the telephone because his mother was deaf (he also advocated and practiced oralism), but his invention ended up being a sound based device that did nothing for the deaf.  Affordable telegraphs with flashing lights would have done more to help them.

But with the advent of cell phones came text messaging, which one would think would benefit the deaf.  Unfortunately, in the early days of cell phones, telephone companies weren’t very enlightened, courteous or forward thinking.  I can imagine this was a real conversation more than once:

Customer: “I need cell phone service with text only.”

Telecom: “Here’s out voice and text plan.”

Customer: “I’m deaf, I only want a text plan.”

Telecom: “If you can’t hear, why would you need a telephone?”

Thankfully, in the early 2000s, telephone companies realized the deaf and hearing disabled needed text only services and began to offer them.  The deaf were among the early adopters of texting, of pagers, Blackberries and other devices specifically for this service.

Deaf go mobile phone crazy

February 8, 2002

Over the last few years, the mobile phone has emerged as a popular device for what at first may seem an unlikely user group: the deaf and other people who are hard of hearing.

Using the Short Messaging Service (SMS) functions on mobiles, people with hearing difficulties can communicate by typing messages into their phones.

By setting their mobile phones to vibrate, they can be alerted when a message comes in.

There are no exact figures on how many of the 8.7 million deaf or hard of hearing people in the UK use mobiles and text messaging, but their increasing adoption of this technology is certainly contributing to the more than one billion text messages a month now being sent in Britain.


As the technology was not developed with this community in mind, operators and manufacturers have been slow to tailor offerings for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Things are changing, as Lisa Watch at the Royal National Institute for the Deaf points out.

Texting (along with email) changed the lives of deaf people because they were no longer dependent on TTD phones, no long or having to travel to a friend’s house find out of they were home.  Communicating, organizing, meeting became much faster with less delay.  And with visible text, the barriers between the deaf and hearing abled fell, with less dependence on interpreters or slow writing on pen and paper.

Text Communication Preferences of Deaf People in the United Kingdom

The Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education (January 2008)

This study is the only comprehensive survey to date of the text communication preferences of deaf people who cannot or prefer not to use voice telephony in the United Kingdom. Respondents covered a wide age range, became deaf or hard of hearing at different ages, and had different communication preferences. Generally, respondents used several forms of text communication, selecting them for particular purposes. E-mail was the most widely used form of text communication, but SMS was the most used by younger respondents. The most prominent reasons for liking different forms of text communication were that they were easy or fast. Older respondents were more likely to give “not knowing how to” as a reason for not using particular forms of communication and would have liked more information about what text communication is available.

4G phones and newer technology also means closed captioning (with ever increasing accuracy), sign language on live video and other services are more readily available just for them.

Deaf Newspaper, LLC (youtube)

“America’s Largest Deaf News. This video is signed in American Sign Language. No subtitles & voice.”

But even with cell phone text only cell phone plans, it doesn’t mean that everyone was that enlightened.  It was only in 2016 that the deaf could send text messages to emergency services like 911.  Before then, it was voice only.  Even now, in late 2018, it’s not available everywhere.  Do they assume that only hearing able people have emergencies?  (With the number of cases of assault against the deaf, of course the deaf need it.)



Telephones made it easier for the deaf to socialize, and music is often a part of that.  Those of limited hearing or none at all may not be able to hear nuances and minute changes, but they can feel the rhythm and bass of music and enjoy it as much as other people.

Rikki Poynter: How Do Deaf People Listen To Music? [CC]

ASL Stew: Deaf People Can Hear Music?!

The deaf are being accomodated with specialized sign language interpreters at major music events – Amber Gallego (the woman in the video) becomes part of the performance.  Restaurants, cafes and other business can accomodate the hearing impaired without great effort, giving them a greater social life.



Next: Sign language and its effect on natural and artificial langauge development


  1. jrkrideau says

    An interesting bit of psychological research in relationship to deaf communications.

    Dorthy Bishop writing about the research and career of Reuben Conrad.

    “This led to the insight that verbal information is encoded into an acoustic form in memory regardless of whether it is received visually or acoustically.”
    “if internal acoustics are important for memory, what happens if you are deaf and don’t have internal acoustics?”
    “He showed that oralism simply did not work, but that instead of ‘inner speech’, deaf children could use ‘inner sign’. Thus by depriving deaf children of the opportunity to sign, teachers were hindering rather than helping their education.”