The telephone never rings for Karen Akers. A flashing light lets her know when someone is calling her Gaithersburg home.
Akers, 43, is profoundly deaf. She communicates with a combination of voice, sign language and written words. For her, being able to use a telephone is a symbol of independence, even a lifeline.
"It gives me a sense of security when I'm alone in the house," said Akers, who lives with her mother. "If somebody tries to break in, if there's a doctor I need to call . . . "
For the past 10 years, Akers and about 70,000 other hearing- and speech-impaired residents of the region have been able to "talk" on the phone through a nonprofit service called the Telecommunications Exchange for the Deaf Inc. (TEDI). The service enables the caller, using a special device, to type a message that is sent by telephone to volunteers, who decode it and relay it to others in a three-way conversation.
This means that Akers can make her own dental appointments, telephone friends to wish them a happy birthday, and contact area libraries as she researches her great-great-great-uncle, President James Buchanan. These days, however, she is spending much of her time making calls to save the service she depends on.
Because of the tight economy, Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer has announced that funds already appropriated for the service will not be released after all. As a result, the service will no longer operate 24 hours a day beginning next month, closing down between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. -- and leaving people like Akers feeling vulnerable during those hours.
And that may only be the beginning; eventually, the service, which places more than 85,000 calls per month, may have to close completely for lack of money to pay its phone bills, said Esther Schaeffer, founder and president.
The dilemma frustrates Akers and makes her fear for the future. Because Akers, who is also legally blind, already feels dependent on others for so many services, such as transportation, losing access to the telephone seems like an ominous step backward, she said.
A 1972 graduate of Gallaudet University, Akers worked for the federal government for 13 years but now lives on a government pension and worries about what will happen to her in the future, as her mother ages.
Her voice rose in anger as she talked about the isolation and dependence she felt before the telephone service was available, when, she said, "I was out of touch with the hearing world.
"Either I just didn't make any phone calls or I had to get someone to make them for me all the time," she said.
"It took away my independence. I don't think a lot of people understand what that is like."