How Deaf People Helped Change Texting Over The Years

Before the Internet came along, deaf people relied on TTYs and snail mail. They’d even drive long distances to their deaf friend’s houses and wave at the window to get their attention! If they’re not home, they’d write a note and leave it at the door before driving back home.

Once the Internet came along, deaf people began using email to communicate with each other. They still used TTYs to make phone calls, however. In the 1990s, it was “cool” to only check your email once a day, or even better, once or twice a week. But once we passed the year 2000, if you only checked your email once a day, you’d quickly get left behind on the latest news, upcoming events, and even gossip.

Throughout the 1990s, email quickly became the dominant medium deaf people used to communicate and remained that way for many years.

Then the Short Messaging Service became mainstream. That changed everything.

How Deaf People Invented Texting


Before we get into how SMS changed the way we communicate, let’s get a preview of how deaf people already mastered the ‘art’ of texting even before SMS came into the picture.

When we used TTYs, we had to type slowly because the signal would get garbled if we typed too fast. Since our thoughts run faster than we typed, we learned how to abbreviate common words such as:

  • Please: PLS
  • Should: SLD
  • Message: MSG
  • Information: INFO
  • Tomorrow: TMW

More examples of these abbreviations are here.

Many deaf people were already proficient in texting by the time SMS rolled around, so we lapped it up right away.

How SMS Changed The Way Deaf People Communicate

If there is one thing SMS has done to the way deaf people talked with each other, it quickly made TTYs obsolete.

Deaf people could now type messages to each other on their mobile phones. They could set their phones to vibrate whenever they receive a text message.

We began carrying pagers, sidekicks, flip phones, and eventually smartphones instead of large bulky tele-typewriters. The advantage with mobile phones was clear; unlike TTYs you could carry them with you anywhere you went.

Among the types of mobile phones deaf people began using in the early- to mid-2000s were:

  • Flip phones or touch-tone phones

  • Pagers and sidekicks

  • Blackberries

Flip phones


The first phones to have text messaging functionality was a touch-tone phone. They were also called “flip phones” because you had to flip them open to use the touch keys.

These phones only had number keys, but each number key had three letters assigned to it. The alphabet were grouped into threes and assigned to the number keys starting with 2 and ending with 9.

The ‘2’ key had ABC, ‘3’ had DEF, ‘4’ had ‘GHI’ and so on. The ‘9’ key, however, usually had the last four letters in the alphabet (WXYZ) assigned to it.

If you wanted to type letters rather than numbers, you had to click a number key between one and three times to get the letter you wanted. If you wanted to type ‘F’, you had to click the ‘3” key three times to get ‘F’.

Many people thought it was difficult in the beginning, but a lot got used to it over time.

Pagers and Sidekicks


The T-mobile Sidekick texting craze really began with deaf people in the early 2000s. It came with a QWERTY keyboard, which quickly replaced the touch-tone way of texting. Today, we cannot possibly imagine going back to using flip phones for texting! Even I wonder how I survived with that.

We started with the WyndTell pager and quickly migrated to the T-mobile Sidekick, both of which we could type quickly using our thumbs.

“Robert R. Davila, chief executive of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute for Technology, said the devices are indispensable. "I used to lug around bulky TTY equipment so that I could use public telephones away from home." Now, "I can travel independently and remain in contact with my office or loved ones, and seek and get information without the need to resort to third-party assistance."

Davila, who is deaf, wrote to me through his WyndTell, which he said has changed his life.“
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The Sidekick craze lasted for several years. Then came the Blackberry.

The new cell phone came with a full keyboard and several apps with email and internet functionality. Deaf employees could communicate with their bosses with company-supplied blackberries.

In 2006, Verizon even offered a deaf data plan for all deaf users, since they had no need for a voice plan. The data plan came with unlimited data that perfectly matched deaf people’s usage patterns.

3G and 4G Gave Us Much More Than Texting

Around the same time as Sidekicks and Blackberries, a 3G cell network was being implemented around the world. 3G enabled all of us, deaf and hearing, to browse the internet on our Blackberries and check email on our Sidekicks.

In 2007, the first Apple iPhone came to the market. The iPhone quickly sold out and became the best selling smartphone of all time, and would remain that way for at least a decade. The iPhone is like a mini computer in our pockets. We could store photos and songs on our iPhone, download and use any kind of apps from the Apple Store, send email, surf the Internet, and exchange messages and documents. We could even take videos and stream them live onto the Internet, including Facebook.

However, the 3G network quickly became congested, raising prices for each tiered data plans. Some providers even eliminated unlimited data plans, much to the chagrin of deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

Sprint and AT&T, however, came out with a new 4G and LTE technology upgrade to increase bandwidth and to alleviate cell network congestion. This helped us send photo and video data faster across our networks, sharing pictures and streaming video on social media, using Video Relay, and our iPhones became our Video Phones (VP).  

Texting Is Easier and Freer As Ever

Today, our deaf community has become permanently intertwined with the hearing world in terms of the flow of information. 3G and 4G/LTE offered us a portal to the bigger and wider world.

Texting became cheaper and cheaper over time, to the point where it’s virtually free and seamless. It’s easier than ever to hit up a friend and go out for a drink after work whenever the mood strikes.

We can text for help, and receive assistance in minutes. We can now travel without much assistance and lead independent lives.

Free and easily available SMS helped make the playing field for us more even.

What’s In Store For The Future?

We used to have 2G, 3G, and now 4G. Predictably, 5G is next.

Indeed, 5G is coming. How that will reshape texting is anyone’s guess. But with virtual reality and augmented reality technologies coming out of the woodworks, 5G may make video streaming much faster, less expensive, and use less bandwidth. This may pave the way for more video content and increased use of sign language within augmented reality.

What a time to be alive!