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Deaf users sound off on Sidekick outage

Recent problems with the smartphone, long popular in the deaf community, leaves many users frustrated and sizing up alternatives.

The T-Mobile Sidekick LX. CNET

When the T-Mobile Sidekick started having data problems two weeks ago, it was a big pain for nearly all of the company's roughly 800,000 subscribers. But it became particularly rough for the many deaf people who have been among the Sidekick's most loyal fan base.

"It was severely limiting and made me very dependent on others," Carla McCraw, a Web designer from San Antonio, Texas, said in an e-mail interview. "This loss of independence was very stressful on me."

McCraw said she relies on her Sidekick to manage everyday tasks, from keeping up with closures at her son's day care to whether soccer practice will be rained out.

"It was extremely frustrating, not being able to know, and my mother had to call the soccer coach and day care, making me feel extremely inadequate," she said. "I had to rely on the Internet through (alternative services such as) Yahoo and Facebook to let my friends know my Sidekick was down."

The good news, for both deaf and hearing users, is that Microsoft and T-Mobile appear to be making headway at restoring much of the data that, at one time, appeared gone permanently.

But even an outage can be a big deal for those that use the Sidekick as something of a communications lifeline.

Lisa Gault, a deaf Sidekick owner in Katy, Texas. Lisa Gault

"As the outage went on, I became concerned about how my deaf teenage son would be able to communicate in an emergency," Jamie Berke, an guide based in the Washington metro area, said in an e-mail.

"I know he is not the only one," said Berke, who is also deaf. "The outage probably meant that thousands of deaf children who depend on their Sidekicks to communicate with parents were unable to communicate in the event of an emergency. Plus, I myself, would have been unable to communicate in an emergency."

The Sidekick became an early favorite in deaf circles because of its good keyboard, then-state-of-the-art instant-messaging abilities, and ability to connect to relay services. T-Mobile improved things further by adding a data-only option so that deaf users weren't paying for voice minutes they didn't use.

Because the Sidekick didn't evolve as fast as other smartphones, many users--deaf and hearing alike--moved to the BlackBerry and other devices. And after their recent experiences, many of the remaining Sidekick users in the deaf community have said they are considering jumping ship, once their T-Mobile contracts end.


Impact on the deaf
CNET News reporter Ina Fried tells
editor Leslie Katz why the Sidekick
troubles hit deaf customers so hard.

Download mp3 (1.44MB)

"I am going to look into Sprint's BlackBerry, which more and more deaf people are taking up, and have complimented, and (said) that it is a lot more reliable," McCraw said.

Lisa Gault, a deaf Sidekick owner in Katy, Texas, said she in an e-mail interview that she relies on the Sidekick as a means to stay in touch with her family.

"It's a way for the school to get a hold of me, if something were to occur with my son who is (not deaf)," Gault said.

Gault said that even short of an emergency, it is a problem not to get her e-mail for an extended period.

"It's annoying, as my friends think I'm ignoring them, when in reality, I didn't get the e-mails yet," Gault said. "It really put the deaf community at more of a disadvantage--more so than for hearing people, since we're so reliant on e-mail (devices) to keep in touch."