Why, for deaf people, the simplest innovations were often the best

First published in the May 2010 issue of the Hearing Times

If I told you that there was once a time when deaf people arranged to meet up by sending a letter – travelling in hope that the other person would meet them – that’d give you an idea of how technology has transformed our lives.

Nowadays we can choose from a range of ways of contacting each other. As a kid I’d have been amazed by the idea of text messages, emails, instant messenger and webcam. The innovations that appeared in my childhood seemed amazing enough.

My Dad used to work for the local highways agency, and on frosty winter nights he’d be on call in case the roads needed salting. Being hard of hearing he didn’t always hear the phone ring, so he had a device installed called the ‘Mountcastle Silent Bell’, which meant when the phone rang, every light in our house flashed on and off. We’d be watching TV when everything would suddenly go black, and Dad would dash to the phone through intermittent bursts of light and darkness.

Dad even found a way of reversing the settings at night so all the lights flashed on in the darkness, waking us up! In a way it was comforting – we could all go back to sleep relaxed in the knowledge that the feeling of footsteps thudding down the stairs wasn’t a burgular after all..!

The silent bell was an simple invention – but effective. It also told us when someone was at the door – the only trouble was cheeky kids in our street soon cottoned on to the comedy value of ringing the doorbell, sending all the lights in our house on and off, before running away!

Another invention that arrived when I was still at infant school was the Textphone. Plugging it into the phone socket meant Mum could phone relatives or deaf friends who also had the device. It had a keyboard and display and you had to press ‘GA’ – (which stood for ‘go ahead’) to show that you’d finished and the other person could start to type – otherwise everything got garbled!

The best thing about the Textphone was that Mum no longer needed to ask Dad to make all her calls, so she was liberated, and Dad got a rest – it suited everyone!

The fax machine wasn’t a deaf invention, but it became a vital part of every deaf household partly because one problem with the Textphone is sometimes deaf people wouldn’t know if the line was engaged, if you’d got the number wrong, if there was a hearing person trying to speak to you, or if it was just taking the other person a while to start typing back. So scribbling out a fax – and crucially, seeing it go through the machine – meant you could be sure your message had got through.

The most exciting device that came into our lives during my childhood wasn’t communication related. It was the ‘VideoCaption Reader’, a small black box about the size of a hardback book, that plugged into our video recorder and magically made subtitles appear on videos.

Until then, we could only watch subtitled programmes on TV. This black box suddenly gave us the chance to pop down to the video shop and hire a video for the evening, like any other family. Then a few years later DVDs came along, with subtitles on nearly every copy (only around half the videos had captioning), and the world changed again!

I recently read about a new device that involves a hearing person placing electronic sensors all over their face so that their mobile phone can lipread them. This enables them to have ‘silent’ mobile phone calls by silently moving their lips so people won’t overhear what they’re saying.

One thing to be said for the invention is that it could create a lot of deaf jobs – employing deaf people to become private detectives, lipreading confidential conversations (!). But the device makes people look ridiculous, speaking silently with wires all over their face they look like they’re doing a good impression of an extra from a horror film.

For me the best inventions are also often the simplest. I’ll never forget the excitement of seeing our lights flash on and off, or a fax come through, or subtitles magically appear on a video. With such a range of new inventions enhancing our lives these days, the trick is not taking them them for granted.

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