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A Phone of Our Own: The Deaf Insurrection Against Ma Bell

It wasn’t until the early 1980’s that AT&T [then still a monopoly] acceded to the wishes of the deaf population and provided lower cost phone services, TTY operator services and was forced to live up to its universal service claims by allowing deaf people to use TTYs hassle-free in their homes. This book traces the two decade fight that early deaf telecom pioneers went through with AT&T and other telcom regulators [such as the FCC and overseas telcos] in order to make that happen. Prior to these advances, deaf people could not make a 911 phone call, could not communicate with other deaf or hearing people via telephones, and were legally prohibited from using devices that worked with their telephone lines such as flashers to alert a deaf person when the phone was ringing.

Prior to the development of the telephone and “talkie” movies, deaf people were more involved in hearing and deaf communities because there were social arenas [ham radio clubs, captioned movies, live theater] that they could attend with only minimal accesibility issues. After the rise of the telephone, a vast part of society suddently became unavailable to the deaf who would then have to rely on family members or neighbors or even community volunteers to help them communicate via the new device. At the same time, AT&T, who had a complete lockdown on all long distance calling in the US, was claiming their service to be universal while at the same time systematically excluding services to deaf people. This book explains the long fight with AT&T who were not only merely inattentive to the needs of the deaf, but actively working to promote their own technologies -- a series of signalling telephones that required the deaf to learn morse code -- at the expense of better technologies currently available. These stories are told throgh tracing the lives of three early telco pioneers who started a company called APCOM that would provide TTYs and coupling devices [sort of like modern day modems] that they built themselves out of materials the phone company had thrown out and tried to destroy. It’s great reading and has at least a mostly happy ending.