Deutsche Telekom's broadband expansion opens up entirely new possibilities for the hearing-impaired to communicate, giving them more independence. That's what I'm talking about with Christian Ebmeyer, an employee in Business Customer Sales at Deutsche Telekom, who is hearing-impaired himself.
The phone rings. When I answer, I hear a female voice telling me “Hello, this is Christian!” I'm a bit confused at first. It takes a moment to adjust to this unfamiliar conversational situation, until my brain processes the information “I'm a sign language interpreter and I will be translating the conversation.” Christian Ebmeyer, the man on the other end of the line, is deaf. The sign language interpreter lends Christian her voice – enabling him to hold a “conventional” phone call. I want to talk with him about what the broadband expansion means for the hearing-impaired. To make a voice call, they need the support of a sign language interpreter, but interpreters aren't always available next to the phone when it comes time to place a call. The alternatives are text-based communication and video telephony. While text messages don't need much data, a distance remains in interpersonal communication: Not only because a technical medium is used as a tool between the conversation partners, but also because there is no one-to-one translation from sign language to written text. Video telephony is an alternative but requires much more data.
Christian is an expert in answering such questions. He has been deaf since birth. Since completing his career training as a surveying technician, he has worked at Deutsche Telekom for 32 years. After positions as a Telekom Shop salesperson and sales representative at Telekom Deutschland, he now works in business development. He maintains contact with organizations and associations, such as the German Federation for the Deaf. And he made key contributions toward establishing a special customer hotline for the hearing-impaired. Today, three deaf employees advise hearing-impaired customers on Deutsche Telekom products and services in sign language, using live chat sessions. In addition, specially trained employees in Deutsche Telekom's online customer support offer support and advice for the hearing-impaired via text chats. Deutsche Telekom is the only communication provider in Germany to offer an advisory service specifically for the hearing-impaired. There are some 14 million hearing-impaired people in Germany, of which around 80,000 communicate in sign language.
During our first phone call, we quickly realized that there is a lot to say about this subject. That's why we scheduled an interview, which we are doing via WebEx, allowing me to also see Christian. The sign language interpreter helps us nevertheless, because I don't understand sign language.
Communication requires personal contact
I ask Christian how important modern telecommunications are for the hearing-impaired. His answer is clear: indispensable! In general, the deaf and hearing-impaired can only communicate with one another if they can see each other. If you can't use a phone, you have to meet in person – which highly restricts your sphere of action and contact opportunities.
Only with the rise of smartphones and mobile internet can the hearing-impaired participate in social life independently and barrier-free, Christian explains. To understand this, it helps to peer back in time, because the lives of the hearing-impaired in Germany have changed fundamentally over the last ten years. Back then, the state of the art was ISDN T-View 100 for fixed-network communications and the Sidekick for mobile communications. Video telephony was only possible in the landline network, but the image quality was very pixilated and “bumpy”, remembers Christian. This often resulted in bumpy communication as well, because facial expressions are also very important in sign language. While the Sidekick gave the hearing-impaired independence from the landline network, its use was limited to areas covered by 3G.
Christian says that communication back then had two key characteristics: It was highly limited geographically and very expensive. The ISDN phone needed two channels by itself, which meant a second line was needed for a fax machine. And there were no flat rates. The call charge meter ticked with every call and every SMS. “Keep it short” – the slogan from phone booths – was also true from a cost perspective.
Sign language interpreting service
The TESS relay services removed a huge barrier in telecommunications: between the hearing and the deaf. This landline service was launched ten years ago. Deutsche Telekom played a key role in its development. Today, TESS is funded predominantly by the 20 largest communication providers in Germany; users also contribute to its funding with their connection fees. The interpreting service makes it possible to make phone calls between the hearing and the deaf, through an interpreting service that is linked via videophone.
More broadband expansion – greater independence
“I have all of them,” says Christian with a smile, referring to his messenger apps. Every one of his hearing-impaired friends and relatives uses a smartphone, but not all of them use the same messenger service. Nonetheless, every app gives Christian a little more independence, because he can reach his friends at any time via Instant Messenger, Skype, or FaceTime. And he doesn't have to wait until he meets them at the sports club or their regular bar. A prerequisite for this is the network coverage of around 98 percent of all households in German mobile communication networks. On the subject of network coverage – I ask Christian what he thinks of the current debate on white spots in Germany. He has a pragmatic opinion: Of course, there are moments when he can't establish a connection, which he finds annoying. But the number of dropped calls is vanishingly small compared to the much larger number of successful calls. And of course, getting in contact is now also possible outside of metropolitan areas with the best mobile coverage – perhaps not as a video call in every location, but at least as a text message.
Mobile thanks to interpreting service app
The high network coverage and availability of generous data options have paved the way to expand the TESS interpreting service in mobile communications as well. TESS is now available as an app for iOS and Android. Christian illustrates just how beneficial it is to the hearing-impaired by pointing out the emergency call option. Since July 2018, it has been possible to place emergency calls via the TESS relay services around the clock, seven days a week. This gives a huge boost to personal safety, because emergency calls are received via TESS every week and then forwarded to the rescue services.
Of course, a generous data plan is a prerequisite for this independence. After all, it's annoying when you run out of high-speed data early in the month… To help make this a rare occurrence, Christian was a strong advocate in convincing Deutsche Telekom to offer a special data option for the hearing-impaired, in cooperation with the German Federation for the Deaf. And it is very well received, says Christian. Sales jump after every trade show for the deaf: by up to 50 percent in the week following a show compared to the average number of bookings.
As the needs of the target audience grow, the data option is upgraded regularly. Where 5 GB used to be enough for a month, it is now 10 GB, and negotiations for an upgrade to 30 GB monthly are already underway. But it's clear that an adjustment to the price will also be needed.
“Hearing” with data glasses
Christian says that the broad availability of the mobile communication network makes it possible for him to live an independent, barrier-free life. It makes him more spontaneous and more independent from support from others, because he can easily organize and manage things himself. Only now does he truly feel like he's an empowered citizen. Thanks to the technical possibilities, there are now many more job opportunities that the hearing-impaired can apply to. Christian is certain that the future will bring many new, more simply ways of the hearing-impaired to communicate, thanks to fast internet connections. He hopes that data glasses will be coming soon, which can record spoken language, convert it to text, and project it onto the lenses. He got the idea from a prototype of data glasses for moviegoers, which could be developed further for everyday use. Christian is optimistic about the future: Both the ongoing broadband expansion and technical innovations will continue to improve the everyday lives of the hearing-impaired and their possibilities to communicate.
Did you know?
There isn't just one sign language – there are several dialects in Germany alone. And sign language in other countries is also different. That means the hearing-impaired can even learn foreign languages!
How does sign language evolve?
Sign language continues to evolve together with spoken language. New words, such as terms involving the internet and communications, are often adopted in German sign language from English sign language.
The telephone is a result of research aimed at helping the hearing-impaired
Alexander Graham Bell, the most important co-inventor of the telephone, worked on communication with the hearing-impaired since his childhood. His father worked as a speech therapist and teacher for the hearing-impaired. That's where he met Eliza Symonds, who was severely hearing-impaired and later became his wife and then Alexander's mother. Alexander followed in his father's footsteps as a teacher for the hearing-impaired and also worked intensively on spoken languages as a means of communication. His experiments with sounds and vibrations led him to develop the telephone, for which he registered a patent in the United States in 1876. During his search for partners to market his invention, Alexander met Mabel Hubbard, the daughter of a business partner, and later married her. He founded the Bell Telephone Company, which would later become the AT&T Corporation. The telephone became a global phenomenon, but only now can the hearing-impaired – the people who Alexander worked the most for over his lifetime – use his invention for their regular communication as well.