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Now, power of speech at beep of cell button

Century. That’s Niketa Chokhany’s short-messaging service (SMS) score every day, give and take a few beeps. The 20-year-old socialises a lot and goes party-hopping with friends. She takes classes on ‘bread craft’ and stained-glass designing and also assists her father in running the family business. She is always in touch with her Nokia 8250, forever on ‘vibrating alert’. The cellphone never rings and never does Niketa speak into it. But her fingers, all too often, race over the buttons at a frenetic pace. Being deaf and mute won’t slow down Niketa any more.

Life has changed dramatically for Niketa in the past two months. And the Chokhany family attributes her transition from “an introvert” to “any normal girl of her age”, almost entirely to the SMS-effect. “We have seen the difference that SMS has made in her life. She no longer needs any assistance to communicate with the outside world. Her confidence has gone up and she has started living like a normal human being,” observes sister-in-law Nitika Chokhany.

And it’s not just Niketa. ‘Texting’ has given Varun Agarwal, Akash Bubna, Pankaj Mishra, Manoj Sharma and so many others “a level-playing field”. And they’re all logged on to Airtel’s Confidence plan, allowing anyone with speech and hearing impairment to send and receive unlimited messages for a monthly rental of Rs 399 and a refundable deposit of Rs 1,000. All one needs to do is produce some proof of hearing impairment.

“This is our effort to help these people overcome the existing barriers of communication. We have developed special SIM cards, where incoming and outgoing calls are barred, but there is access to latest information such as news, stocks, cricket,” says Deepak Gulati, chief executive officer, Bharti Cellular Ltd.

The response clearly shows that it has struck a silent, but significant, chord with people like Pankaj Mishra. Pankaj, who runs his own gift-items business, feels the SMS technology is “far superior” to pagers, which he used for some time. “Earlier, I used to depend on e-mail or I would require someone capable of understanding my sign language to communicate with my business partners. But now I use the cellphone and can contact people on my own,” signals Varun Agarwal.

Manoj Sharma, owner of Sharma Sweets, on Shakespeare Sarani, nods his assent. The president of the Calcutta Friendship of the Deaf — an association with over 60 members — conveys how more than 20 members of the club have already gone SMS-cellular, “not just a new tool of communication but a new way of life”.

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