We have a hearing-impaired sixth grader coming to our middle school next fall. One of the many challenges this student faces is the inability to use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate with other students and with adults. While he certainly knows ASL, his teachers and fellow students don’t. So it’s difficult for him to work on those skills at school.

SorensonHis parents suggested that the school investigate the acquisition of a Sorenson Videophone. This device is a video conferencing appliance. It has a built-in camera, connects to a TV and to an ethernet network, and is about as easy to use as TiVo. The idea is that the student can use this videophone to communicate with other deaf students in other schools. They can use sign language to carry on the conversations, and all of the students will benefit from the experience.

Sorenson provides video relay services. Essentially, a deaf person can use a videophone to connect to an interpreter. The interpreter makes a regular voice call to a hearing individual, and acts as a translator between the two parties. They charge for this service, and make enough money to give away the videophones for free. There is no charge for calls between videophones. So this isn’t going to cost the school any money.

I went to the web site and filled out the application form. The whole process took about five minutes. It was clear from the lack of red tape in the application form that this isn’t a government-funded project. I was expecting that I wouldn’t hear back from them, and I’d have to follow-up, make my case for this student, and try to convince them that this is a worthwhile application for their product. After all, it’s unlikely that this particular device will be used with the relay service, so they’re not likely to make any money on it. It’s understandable that they would want to drag their feet, or deny the request altogether. This is one of those things that can take months to get done. To my surprise, I received an email a few days later. “Can we install it next week?”

“Sure. Next week is great.”

“Do you already have a TV to connect this device to?”

“I didn’t realize we needed one. I’ll see if the school has one they can spare.” I was hoping we could use a computer monitor. We seem to have lots of those.

“That’s all right. I’ll just bring one when I come.”

So the installer came out, set up the videophone, and provided a TV. He configured the device, made several test calls, and ensured everything was working properly. The whole experience took less than an hour. The device is ready for the student, and this is possibly the best experience I’ve ever had with an assistive technology device.

I can’t help but draw parallels between this installation and the upgrade of our distance learning equipment. We’re replacing our outdated, proprietary, analog distance learning system with a new Polycom unit that provides IP-based video conferencing. We’re more than a year into the process, and getting answers to even the most basic questions (what makes the Polycom monitor so much better than the LG one that it’s worth an extra $3,800?) is nearly impossible. With a little luck and about $30,000, we’ll get this project done this summer, too. But somehow I doubt the whole process will take an hour.