Audrey Fraizer

Audrey Fraizer

Best Practices

by Audrey Fraizer

A program introduced in February 1975 at the Francis Scott Key Bank in Frederick, Md., offered the community’s first real alternative to a telephone that was, after all, “just one more useless piece of furniture” for individuals who were deaf or had partial hearing loss.

Now, thanks to the initiative and empathy of bank Assistant Vice President Horman Kinsley, they would have free access to a teletypewriter (TTY) for communication with the bank, police, and the city’s two fire departments.

“Deaf and hearing-impaired persons will now be able to get medical and protective aid just like hearing persons through this auxiliary hook-up,” said Kinsley, who had partial hearing loss. They could also, he continued, “phone the bank and transact business just like a person with normal hearing.”1

Communication was two-way. The bank could contact the same individuals using a setup between the bank TTY and a home system (often bank funded). The home system connected to a floor lamp that flashed on during bank-initiated calls.

The bank was not the first in the country to adapt a TTY for use by those who were deaf or had partial hearing loss, although it was among the first establishments to provide access in a place of commerce. In 1976, the TTY network consisted of more than 2,500 TTYs, predominantly in locations serving the hearing-impaired, including schools and vocational rehabilitation offices.

Their use took off from the independence TTY provided to the hearing- and speech-impaired. TTY offered individuals the ability to make personal business or social contacts on their own without the loss of privacy the assistance of family or friends necessitated and, according to the Oskaloosa Herald, the TTY also provided “peace of mind in knowing they can secure help in emergencies.”2

The beginnings

Ironically, TTY owes its existence to Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone primarily to help his wife; she was deaf, and Bell wanted a device that could amplify sound and, consequently, enhance her ability to communicate.

Technology during the next century caught up to Bell, and in the 1960s the TTY was developed to the profound benefit of the hearing- and speech-impaired. The first system was introduced in 1954 in New Jersey and in 1964 deaf physicist Robert Weitbrecht and two of his colleagues, also deaf, invented the modern TTY by connecting two teletype machines with a telephone wire.

Their invention spurred the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf Inc. to approach AT&T (American Telephone and Telegraph) for a donation of more than 1,000 of its obsolete and surplus machines. They succeeded. Four years later, the Teletypewriters for the Deaf was started in Indiana.

In most cases, early TTYs were made from components stripped off donated machines (phones, teletype, and acoustic couplers) and refurbished parts. The TTYs were far from portable, weighing up to 300 pounds, each with a keyboard and paper for printing messages. Like a newspaper teletype machine, the clunky TTYs were extremely noisy.

The Telephone Pioneers of America, a volunteer organization of career AT&T employees, took the project under their wings in the early 1970s, and through their connections acquired old Western Union teletypewriters—known as Model No. 15—that could be fitted with a coupling device and hooked up to a standard telephone. The refurbished machines were given, without cost, to families based on need; the waiting list could take months to fulfill.

By 1998, there were an estimated 4 million TTY users nationwide, including thousands of specially designed public use TTYs installed at airports, mass transit stations, government buildings, hospitals, schools, and shopping malls. The initial bulky machines eventually came down in size, with some models small enough (less than five pounds) to carry in a case and connect to an ordinary phone.

Message sent

The TTY system has worked much the same throughout the first 20 years.

The letters the caller typed in the message were turned into electrical signals that traveled over normal telephone lines. When the signals reached another TTY, they were converted back into letters—the same message—that printed on a paper roll on the receiver’s end.

The messages were in code, abbreviations of common phrases, much like today’s text messages. For example, when a person was finished typing a statement, he or she typed “GA,” indicating that his or her portion of the message was completed and the other party should “go ahead.” When either party was ready to end the call, “SK GA” was typed, meaning “signing off or go ahead.”

In the 1980s, TTY modems made their first appearance, linking TTYs to computers. TTY machines were installed on shelves or in drawers below pay phones, and today most pay phones have TTYs. Today’s TTYs are small, flat keyboards—no larger than a laptop—each with a telephone perched above the keyboard.

Communication centers

No emergency operator support for the deaf or hearing-impaired caller existed from 1876 through 1990.

Once Automatic Location Identification (ALI) support became more common in the early 1990s, the deaf and hearing-impaired callers who phoned 9-1-1 were supposed to tap a pencil on the mouthpiece of the phone to alert the Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) operator. Most callers and many PSAP dispatchers were unaware of the system, and even if the dispatcher was aware of the tapping sound, ALI didn’t work on all calls.3

In the mid-1990s, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandated the installation of TTYs at all PSAPs, along with dispatcher training on operating the device. TTY 9-1-1 callers were still directed to tap the TTY spacebar to alert the dispatcher to manually connect his or her TTY.

Modern times

Technology has again caught up with the TTY. Between 1999 and 2006, the number of TTYs listed in the U.S. Blue Book (a directory of TTY users) dropped from 55,000 to 30,000.4 In recent years, the numbers had continued to decline with the ease and availability of text messaging and the Internet, although some users do have portable TTYs that can be plugged into cellphones.

Current digital cellphones have a TTY setting that turns off voice compression and many smartphones have a TTY software application, allowing the user to text type from the cellphone keypad, and the cell carrier network server converts TTY modem tones to legacy TTY devices.5

Cautionary note

Despite modern technology, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), however, makes this message clear: “Don’t Throw Away Your TTY.”

When there is a power outage and no Internet service, having an “old-fashioned” TTY with battery backup power and a regular telephone landline may be your only way to connect to a 9-1-1 emergency communication center. No other technology connects you directly and as securely to the 9-1-1 operator during an emergency.

NAD President Bobbie Beth Scoggins advises, “The NAD urges all individuals to keep their telephone line and use their TTY first for calling 9-1-1. Protect the health and safety of yourself and the people you love. Don’t throw away your TTY.”6


1Barnhart M. “TTY: Phones for the Deaf.” Hagerstown Daily Mail. 1975; Feb. 17. (accessed Dec. 10, 2014).

2“DOT installs TTY on public pay telephones.” Oskaloosa Herald. 1998; Aug. 25. (accessed Dec. 10, 2014).

3Combs J. RIT NTID 911 Briefing. 2011; January.

4Mackenzie A. “The History of TTY for the Deaf.” eHow. (accessed Dec. 22, 2014).

5See note 3.

6“Don’t Throw Away Your TTY!” National Association of the Deaf. (accessed Dec. 22, 2014).