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AOL debuts service for disabled

IM-based service lets those who are hard of hearing or speech disabled place relay phone calls from computers.

    America Online on Thursday announced an instant messenger relay service for users who are hard of hearing or speech disabled.

    AIM Relay Service will let hearing- and speech-disabled users place relay telephone calls using their AOL Buddy List or AIM Buddy List feature, the company said. The service can be accessed from any PC or device running AOL services and will be free for AOL members and Apple Computer's iChat users.

    Relay services facilitate telephone communication for people who are deaf, hard of hearing or speech disabled. Usually, hearing- or speech-impaired people use a teletypewriter or TTY devices to connect with a relay communications assistant, who places the call and relays the conversations between two parties. The assistant reads the caller's text to the recipient and types the recipient's voiced response back.

    The AIM offering provides an additional access point for telecommunication relay services. In this case, customers will use instant messages instead of typing text into a TTY device.

    The company said the service will be compatible with text and video relay service providers that can work with AOL's proprietary service or AIM clients. AIM Relay Services has already partnered with relay service providers such as, backed by MCI, and Hands On Video Relay Service.

    "We've seen the immense popularity of the AOL and AIM services within the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, and we are excited to extend its value by providing easy access to relay services," Tom Wlodkowski, director of accessibility at AOL, said in a statement. "We are continually working to develop new ways technology can meet the needs of people with disabilities."