An article Tuesday about a new telephone service for the deaf in the District implied that it is the only one in the area that relays one-on-one conversations between the deaf and persons who can hear. At least one other service, Telecommunications Exchange For the Deaf in Great Falls, provides similar services, including free and unlimited calls for deaf business customers.
Most of his life, John Mitchiner, an Annandale accountant, has had to depend on others whenever he needed to use the telephone.
"I hated the feeling of having to ask someone to make my calls for me. I wanted to be an independent person," said Mitchiner, who has been deaf since the age of one.
Although teletype hookups are available, they can be used only to call others who have the machines. But a service initiated a year ago in the Washington area means the the deaf and hearing-impaired can use these type machines to communicate with anyone who has a phone.
With the service, Mitchiner can call about having his air conditioning system repaired or inquire about work on his car without having to wait for someone to make the call for him.
"I don't know why I waited so long to use this service. It has made my life more manageable," he said in a typed message.
The service is provided through Capital Communications for Deaf and Hearing Impaired Persons Inc. (CAPCOM), a nonprofit organization that serves more than 200 deaf persons in the Washington area.
To use the service, which is free to nonbusiness customers and costs businesses about $50 a month, a subscriber must have a portable minicomputer--called a Telecommunications Device for the Deaf, or TDD--which can be purchased for upwards of $250.
"It takes a long time to clarify business messages for the deaf and it is not fair to others who want to use the service," said Dr. Richard Rosen, executive director and founder of CAPCOM.
An attorney who formerly taught the hearing-impaired at Gallaudet College, Rosen said he started the service because he felt that deaf people needed to be able to lead more independent lives.
"Most deaf people waste a lot of time," Rosen said. "Either they have to wait until a hearing person can help, or many times they have to travel out of their way to see about business that could have been conducted over the phone."
"We're attempting to help by saving the deaf person time with this service," he said.
Using the TDD, a deaf caller transmits a typed message over telephone lines to clattering wire machines at the CAPCOM office, located at 5100 Wisconsin Ave. NW. There, a volunteer staff of two to five operators relays the messages to the receiving hearing party, listens to the response and relays it to the deaf caller.
The service is available from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekends, and protects the privacy of all conversations.
"The conversations take much longer than regular phone calls," said operator Christopher Wise, who estimated that each call takes from three to 15 minutes. Part of that time is spent keeping the deaf caller informed of how the relay is proceeding, for example, explaining that the receiving phone is ringing, busy or on hold.
"This service is helping to fill a need that isn't being filled anywhere else," said Wise, 18, who works as an operator part-time.
"We try to eliminate the feeling that there is a third person involved," Rosen said. But user Wanda Berke said it is difficult to forget the third person.
"Although talking through another person is something every deaf person has to tolerate," Berke said, "sometimes it is difficult for me to make clear what I want because I am often considered the third person."
"I must be assertive enough to make it clear that I am the one calling and not the answering service."
Nevertheless, Berke, 31, of Seabrook, Md., a teacher Kendall Demonstration Elementary School, a school for the deaf attached to Gallaudet College, said she considers the CAPCOM service "a blessing."
"This service has helped me tremendously in making calls that I would not be able to do otherwise. Not only that, it also helps hearing callers to talk to me," she said.
Rosen, who said there are about 27,000 deaf and 103,000 hearing-impaired people in the Washington area, said he would like to expand CAPCOM to a 24-hour service and also to provide sign language interpreters to accompany deaf persons when they must communicate with people who don't understand sign language.
But Rosen said provision of these additional services depends on community and financial support. "We're operating at about 50 percent capacity. We're seeking more grant money, volunteer and paid help," he said.