September 20 to 26, 2020, marks the 52nd annual Deaf Awareness Week.  Celebrated by the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) and its global affiliates since 1958, Deaf Awareness Week promotes the positive aspects of deafness and deaf culture, raises awareness for organizations that support those who are deaf and encourages inclusion for all.

Inclusion for all speaks powerfully to Matt Myrick, lead accessibility solutions engineer with AT&T’s Chief Accessibility Office. The work of Matt and his team touches everything from websites to physical spaces to devices and live meetings by ensuring that AT&T’s products and services are open, accessible and inclusive. “My job is to make sure everyone can access anything we put in the hands of customers,” he said.

Matt, who has been deaf since birth, knows firsthand why accessibility cannot be an afterthought at AT&T. “One of my proudest accomplishments has been helping develop an interoperable solution that connects TTY (teletypewriter), an analog device, to RTT (real-time text),  an internet protocol (IP) solution that was built into AT&T’s core voice network,” he said, describing an FCC-approved innovation that debuted in 2016.

“Before RTT came along, a TTY user who called 9-1-1 in an emergency –when every second counts – would first wait for the 9-1-1 dispatcher to respond. Then, the conversation would go back-and-forth, message-by-message, using acronyms like GA (Go Ahead) or SK (Stop Keying),” he explained.  “An RTT user, on the other hand, could simultaneously type or speak what they wanted to say with no waiting, very similar to SMS texting. Particularly valuable in an emergency, RTT enables individuals with hearing or speech loss to have a ‘communication experience’ that is as close as possible to a hearing person using a smartphone device,” said Matt.

To this day, Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) Centers across the United States do not support true RTT-to-RTT calls, so the RTT-to-TTY solution remains in use for individuals with speech or hearing disabilities to place 9-1-1 calls. “Our work has changed the industry and improved lives for people with hearing and speech loss,” Matt said. “RTT continues to improve as more and more consumers become aware of the technology."

Having personally experienced changing technology and what it brings about in the world of accessibility, Matt speaks optimistically about the future. “As someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, I’ve lived that life,” he said. “I used to be a TTY user myself back in the day, and I’ve seen the technology evolve from beepers to flip phones to personal digital assistants to smartphones. When you bring together technology and accessibility, we all benefit.”

Get Involved

Deaf Awareness Week ends with International Day of the Deaf on Sept. 27.  Take the opportunity to honor the deaf and hard of hearing community by reaching out and learning more.  Ideas include:

  • Seek out activities and resources within your community, for example, sign language classes.
  • Get to know your local deaf and hard of hearing community and explore its culture and heritage.
  • Learn about the history of sign language and discover how it is growing in popularity.
  • Promote access to education and technology for deaf and hard of hearing people.

Communication Tips

When communicating with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, remember to:

  • Wear a mask with a clear panel, if possible, to ensure the other person can see your mouth and facial expressions.
  • Get the person's attention before trying to communicate.
  • Make sure lighting is good; bright enough to see well but not creating shadows on the speaker's face or shining directly in the other person's eyes.
  • If speaking, do so clearly and at a normal volume. Do not exaggerate mouth movements or facial expressions. If you have a mustache/beard, be sure it is well trimmed. Do not cover your mouth with your hands.
  • Check for understanding. If there is a breakdown in communication, figure out another way to say, spell, or write down the main ideas.