While shopping in Boston recently, Michelle Dunn wanted to make contact with her husband, who was elsewhere in the store.
So she pulled out her smartphone. It seemed an obvious choice, except for this: Dunn is deaf.
She quickly established visual contact using a video-chat app, and began communicating with him in sign language.
A passerby stopped and stared, not comprehending why Dunn was gesturing into her cellphone.
“Then they went around a corner and saw my husband, so I guess they figured it out,’’ said Dunn, a residential director at the Walden School in Framingham, which serves deaf students. “It didn’t bother me, though. [This] technology is an everyday savior in my life.’’
Dunn, who is in her early 40s, belongs to a generation of deaf people for whom the telephone, that most basic of communication tools, has gone from being a nearly unusable piece of technology to a vital part of their daily lives.
Relationships have deepened because of this, many in the deaf community say. Old dependencies have been shed. The mainstreaming process has accelerated as their ability to communicate has gotten more adaptable, and more portable, than seemed possible a few years ago.
For the deaf and their family members, friends, and work colleagues, the net effect has been liberating, even transformative.
“When I can communicate in my first language, which is sign language, it’s so much more convenient, because this is my culture,’’ said Samantha Perry, 18, during a group interview at The Learning Center for the Deaf in Framingham. “Facial expressions, grammar, body language - I have the ability to express myself more freely when it’s visually on a screen. If I had to do it in text, I’d feel more limited.’’
In addition to Perry, who is a senior at the Walden School, the group included six teachers and administrators who work at the center. All are deaf. Sign-language interpreters also sat in on the discussion, which touched upon other technological innovations that have benefited the deaf in recent years, making their communications both more spontaneous and more natural.
These innovations include video relay services - camera-equipped devices that facilitate online communication relying on sign language - and phone relay centers, where interpreters translate signed messages into spoken words, and vice versa, for the hearing and nonhearing.
Access to these enhanced communication devices has been aided by the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, passed by Congress in 2010, a law that aims to ensure that the needs of disabled people are met as communication technologies evolve. According to Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., between 500,000 and 2 million US residents are conversant in American Sign Language.
For the past year, Gene Mirus, a member of Gallaudet’s ASL and Deaf Studies faculty, has been studying how deaf people use this manual form of communication on smartphones such as the Apple iPhone 4. “Deaf people definitely have a chance to call each other wherever they are now,’’ Mirus says. “They’re no longer restricted to their home or office, and that’s given them a mobility they never had before.’’
Perry, the youngest in the group, has owned her smartphone for three years. Like the others, she has become adept at signing while holding the phone away from herself in one hand while using the other to form words. In many instances, deaf cellphone users place their phone in a small cradle or rest it against a wall, allowing them to sign with both hands.
For many in the group, this ability to sign virtually anywhere a cellphone signal is available is a far cry from what they grew up with.
Dunn spoke about her sister always being the first to learn about important family news, simply because she could hear while Dunn could not. With the advent of video-phone technology, said Dunn, “the playing field has really been leveled.’’
Years ago, she added, hearing children of deaf parents were routinely thrust into the role of family interpreter and call-maker. With two hearing daughters of her own now, aged 15 and 12, she is grateful they do not have to do that.
“Having all these options means I don’t force my kids to grow up too fast,’’ said Dunn.
Patrick Costello, the center’s sign language director, recalled how isolated deaf people once felt. To illustrate, he showed pictures of the bulky, phone-connected teletypewriter machines that first became available in the 1970s. Known as TTYs, these machines allowed deaf people to communicate by phone but in a far more cumbersome form than today’s technology facilitates.
Even then, few families - his included - could afford such a luxury, Costello said. More likely, these machines were found in offices, institutions such as schools and hospitals, or in clubs where deaf people gathered to socialize.
“Otherwise, deaf people would typically get information either through snail mail or face-to-face contact,’’ Costello said. Welcome as they were, TTYs were loud, heavy, and slow, he said.
Ivy Velez, an intensive care coordinator at the center, nodded in agreement. “If you ran out of paper, you were in big trouble, too,’’ she said with a laugh. “It meant you talk too much.’’
Peter Bailey, the center’s associate executive director, said both his parents and all six of his siblings are deaf. He recalled how his father used to drive to a friend’s house and wait outside, hoping his friend would come home.
With no way to call ahead, social engagements like these became matters of chance, he reflected, and not planned events.
“The bottom line is, there’s so much more communication access now for deaf people - video phones, e-mails, texting,’’ Bailey said. “That gap has been closed.’’
Nancy Vincent, a parent-infant coordinator, said that when she was Perry’s age, she would have to ask her mother (who could hear) to act as interpreter whenever Vincent wanted to talk to her girlfriends.
“Can you imagine two 18-year-old girls having girl talk through their parents?’’ Vincent wondered. “Their mothers? Having to wait to learn what the message was? That used to bother me.’’
Then it was Perry’s turn to nod sympathetically. “I have to admit,’’ she said, “I feel very lucky.