When Gail Edwards works with her real estate clients -- lining up appointments, discussing bidding strategy or just checking in -- she's often talking to her TV screen.
She's not speaking out loud. Instead, she's using American Sign Language, fingers flying, pausing to emphatically shake her head or to put her hands up in surprise or disbelief. On the TV screen, she might see a deaf client, watching her on his or her own screen and signing back. Or she might see a video relay interpreter -- a hearing person who calls up the person Edwards wants to communicate with, then translates between that person's spoken words and Edwards's signs.
Edwards, 37, a part-time agent for Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in the Kentlands in Gaithersburg, is using the newest technology of videophones and video relay service, widely available for free to the deaf and hard of hearing because of provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The technology has been a big boost for the deaf and hard of hearing in many kinds of communication and transactions. But it has been "a real breakthrough" in real estate, Edwards said. Because the purchase of a home is the biggest investment for most Americans, the stakes are higher and the need to understand exactly what's going on is greater than in most transactions. At the same time, real estate sales and purchases are extremely complicated and involve a language known best by insiders.
Deaf buyers and sellers get frustrated "if they do not understand or sign papers without knowing what they were getting themselves into," said Barbara Tresnak, 35, a deaf agent with Coldwell Banker's North Capitol office.
Tresnak was interviewed via e-mail, a technology that also has made quick communication easier. But she noted, "Deaf people depend on facial expressions to make communication clear and concise. If they tried to send me an e-mail and I do not understand what they meant . . . we would meet through the videophones. After they explain to me in American Sign Language, I will say 'Ahh! I got it!' "
Edwards conducted part of the interview for this article through the new video technology at her home office in Germantown. She also speaks and reads lips, and she says the language of the deaf and the language of the hearing are not the same. "American Sign Language is not at all like English," she said, with signs not only for words but for thoughts and nuances.
"Face-to-face communication is so much more effective" than text-based relay services, called TTY or TDD, that the deaf have used for years, she said. With these services, deaf people have to type in text on a device hooked up to a phone line, and then must wait to read the other person's typed response. The new technology lets the deaf chat in real time, with the ability to see the emotions behind the chatting.
"There is much less [chance for] misunderstanding through the videophone," said Tad Yamada, a Rockville homeowner who listed his condominium in Wheaton with Edwards before the new technology came into play.
In the 18 months Edwards has had access to it, she has found it made her work time more productive. It "has helped cut down the time to make showing appointments," she said in an e-mail. "Using a TTY relay to try to set up showings of eight homes later in the day was quite time-consuming."
Tresnak agrees: "It does help cut down driving time for appointments and misunderstanding e-mail messages."
When two deaf people -- buyer, seller or agent -- need to communicate, they can sign to each other through videophones, which work with a TV monitor and a high-speed Internet connection to transmit real-time images. If one party can hear, they use a video relay service, or VRS, which involves either videophones or computers with Web cameras that link to an interpreter, who translates spoken words into sign language and vice versa.
The goal of the Americans With Disabilities Act is that deaf and hard-of-hearing people can "engage in [telephone] communication . . . in a manner that is functionally equivalent to the ability of" a person without hearing loss. VRS "is the closest form of functional equivalent service as is possible for today's technology," according to the National Association of the Deaf in Silver Spring.
Such services "represent a major technological advance for the civil rights and economic opportunities of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals," said Kelby Brick, the association's director of law and advocacy.
Twenty-eight million Americans are deaf or hard of hearing, according to the association. The Washington area is home to an estimated 50,000 people who were born deaf or consider themselves culturally deaf, according to Gallaudet University, the nation's leading university for the deaf and hard of hearing. Washington is considered one of the main centers of this population because of the education offered at Gallaudet and the jobs offered by the federal government.
So the Washington area was promising territory for Jim Sorenson Jr., the creator of the videophone, and his Salt Lake City company, Sorenson Media Inc., which has been largely responsible for the broad expansion of VRS.
Sorenson says "one of the first relationships we set up" after starting the VRS company in April 2003 was with Gallaudet's interpreting services program. The Sorenson company now has about 1,800 interpreters in 32 centers across the country.
There is no way to calculate how much time the interpreters might spend on real estate-related conversations, says Sorenson. But "a common theme we get is that the service offers users new abilities that they weren't able to get before or where they weren't able to compete."
Germantown agent Edwards, who got her bachelor's degree at Gallaudet and took real estate classes at Montgomery College, said the Washington housing market has been difficult for all buyers, and particularly for first-time buyers, but seems to be more of a challenge for the deaf.
Because of the stiff competition, she has had to spend a lot of time "educating buyers" about how to structure bids, she said.
The more serious problem is that "deaf people are sometimes economically disadvantaged, getting lower-paying jobs," said Edwards. "Generally deaf people are underemployed or don't have the opportunity for advancement" that hearing people have.
Edwards, who also works full-time as a multimedia specialist at the Federal Highway Administration, says she tries to cover the cost of interpreter service if her clients need them and the providers won't pay. The only time she needs them are for home inspections and settlements, she says, and "usually it's not a problem for the title offices to provide one at their expense because it's a part of doing business."
She has found a Frederick-based home inspection company that will bring an interpreter, but says "it's more of a problem" to find smaller, often single-employee companies that will pay them.
Edwards was optimistic that the prospects will change in light of the recent settlement of a disability discrimination suit filed by the National Association of the Deaf against a mortgage company and two Maryland settlement companies.
The association had alleged that the companies had refused to provide qualified interpreter services for a mortgage refinancing closing, as mandated by the Americans With Disabilities Act. The companies denied any liability but agreed to reimburse the client, who was deaf, and his wife for the cost of the interpreter services and to pay $1,000 plus their legal costs and attorney fees, the association announced Sept. 9. The defendants also agreed to provide and pay for future closings or services provided to the client, the association said.
Brick says the case is "having an impact beyond the specific plaintiffs."
And so, might videophones and video relay services someday be used by all real estate agents? The instantaneous face-to-face communication is appealing as a concept, but the hearing would have to pay for the devices.
Maybe, says Sorenson, who hit on the videophone's application to the deaf when he thought of his brother-in-law, who was born deaf, and who would love his company to keep expanding.
Maybe, says Brick, who would like to increase access for deaf and hard-of-hearing people.
Maybe, says Edwards, but not unless the hearing agents use the right interpreters. "I still think there are many deaf people who would appreciate personal service in their own language preference," she says.
Gail Edwards relies on new video technology in her role as an agent.
With a camera atop a TV monitor, sales agent Gail Edwards can communicate with clients on her videophone.