The Anne Arundel County library system has taken a technologically significant step toward improving access for hearing- and speech-impaired residents.

In May, the county became one of the first in the country to install a new system that combines traditional text telephones and modern, modem-driven computers. The $7,200 system, known as TICAL, system allows people with a TTY/TTD phone or a computer to talk with librarians at any of the library's 15 branches.

The new technology means that more of the about 2,000 deaf and hearing-impaired Anne Arundel residents can reach a librarian to inquire about the latest bestseller or whether a certain overdue volume has been returned. But TICAL also is part of the broadening landscape of assisted-listening technology--a field that experts say is swelling along with the telecommunications industry.

"The fact that this library is installing such a system is testimony to the fact that technology is forging ahead in the area of hearing impairment," said Henry Ilecki, director of audiology in industry and private practice for the Rockville-based American Speech Language Hearing Association.

Less than a decade ago, Ilecki said, it would have been difficult to find the kind of specialized services for the hearing impaired available today--everything from specialized software like the TICAL system to infrared transmitters that are increasingly offered at music concerts.

Leonard Blackshear, president of TeleSonic, the Annapolis company that designed and distributes the TICAL system, said it is more than simply the technology boom that is fueling strides in assisted-listening devices.

Threats of lawsuits are making businesses and government agencies pay attention to the Americans with Disabilities Act and the federal Rehabilitation Act as never before, he said.

According to the Rehabilitation Act, federal agencies--as well as any state or local agencies that accept federal dollars--must make sure all electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities.

The key phrase in the law, Blackshear said, is "functionally equivalent," meaning deaf and hearing-impaired patrons are increasingly expecting service that approximates that available for hearing customers. That, he believes, means that the systems the deaf and hearing impaired currently rely on, such as human relay systems, may soon be unsatisfactory.

One of the benefits of the TICAL (which stands for TTY Information and Communication Access for Libraries) software, he said, is that it allows library patrons to communicate directly with library staff. By dialing 410-222-4516 via either a text telephone or a modem-equipped computer, a patron will reach a random branch of the county library. A staff member will then be able to either help the caller or transfer the caller to a different branch.

Betty Morgenstern, information and outreach librarian with the county, said the previous system was laborious and inconvenient for patrons with hearing impairments. With TTY phones only at Eastport Annapolis Neck and North County, deaf customers often had long waits ahead of them if their questions involved another branch. For each patron, librarians would need to make all of the telephone calls to get any needed information.

The new system made sense, she said, because it only requires a single number and works faster than TTY phones. Installing text telephones in each branch would have required separate phone numbers for each one.

But, Morgenstern said, the greatest challenge now is drawing patrons to the new service. Calls, she said, have been sporadic.

"I wouldn't say we've had a lot of use, but we have had some response," she said. "It will still take some time for word to get out."