I want to feature a deaf-owned business that is a leader in text telecommunications, Ultratec (www.ultratec.com). Robert Engelke started his business in 1978 out of the basement of his home in Wisconsin (now based in Madison, Wisconsin). At the time, he was an electrical engineer designing devices for people with communication disorders. You have to remember that during this time, technology was expensive, whether it be car phones, new computers coming out, fancy stereos in cars, or the video phone technology that was available at the time. Ditto for the TTYs, which cost US$650-1,000 each ($2,773-4,267 in today’s dollars) in the 1970s. This meant that it was hard for families to afford TTYs. In fact, I don’t remember any of my friends in Texas having them until after about 1982 or so. I didn’t have one until my mid-20s, around 1992 or so.
Ultratec was started to make low-cost TTYs a reality for the Deaf Community. The first TTY made was the V.I.P. Communicator, a TTY the size of a pocket calculator. Robert continued to improve the product by meeting with deaf people to ask questions and test ideas. The Deaf Community in Wisconsin made a very big impact on the TTY’s design and features, through testing and input from them. Other people active in the Deaf Community joined Ultratec. In 1980, Ultratec introduced the Superphone, the first TTY to include memory capabilities and ASCII. Best of all, it cost under $500. Through interaction with the Deaf Community and seeing how popular the TTYs were, the Minicom TTY was introduced in 1981 for under $200. Now, families wanting to communicate with their deaf family member or those with more than one deaf family member could have more than one TTY. You can imagine what this revolution in basic communications across distances did for us. We could now communicate with friends across towns and states, and that helped with employment opportunities once relay service became a reality.
The neat thing is that through a grassroots effort, Ultratec TTYs were being sold by deaf people to their friends and families, and sales really took off from there. Thanks to their efforts, the number of households with TTYs grew immediately. The thing you must remember is that Ultratec has always involved people who are deaf in its TTY development to be truly responsive to what people need. Ultratec responded with the Compact/C TTY for portability, Public TTY for pay phone access, and the Superprint 4425 and the deluxe Superprint Pro80 for business users.
Ultratec has also released supporting products such as signalers, TTY detectors, and loud phone ringers, rounding out their product offerings in addition to the TTYs. Now, TTYs are available throughout the world. Ultratec is the world’s largest manufacturer of text telecommunications equipment. Deaf and hard-of-hearing people continue to work there.
As a side note, I had one of their printing TTYs that I got in the mid-late 90s and used until it broke in 2000 from rough handling. I loved it! It was awesome and made communications possible with my family through Voice Carry-Over. In fact, my last conversation with my Mother, ever, was through one of these… Thank you, Robert.