CLEARWATER — A buzz of excitement permeated Blossom Montessori School for the Deaf as students awaited the arrival of something called the "Z-Van."
The van, which travels the country, is owned by Z Video Relay Service, a Clearwater telecommunications company run by and for deaf people.
Although Blossom Montessori's students have grown up with computers, video cameras and digital phones, the van was bringing new technology geared specifically to the deaf community. That, and the message to dream big.
On Tuesday, 23 students sat crossed-legged on the floor watching as two deaf ZVRS employees — regional director Jenny Locy and Z-Van driver Andrew Horn — encouraged them to pursue whatever careers they desired.
The Z-Van crew showed the students technology created to foster independence. Video phones that allow several people to communicate during one call. Video answering machines. Pagers that alert a user when a video message arrives. Even a phone connected to ZVRS that allows a deaf person to sign and a hearing person to hear the words in spoken language.
Some of the deaf students had never seen a videophone. Others had older ones at home.
Either way, the Z-Van's visit created a flurry of what-ifs and when-I-grow-up career ideas.
"I think learning about the technology is awesome," said Faith Patterson, 7, a hearing child of deaf adults. She wants to be a dress designer and an interpreter. "If my friend is deaf and lives in a different state, I can use a videophone to call her. You can do your dreams. No one can hold you back."
Edgar Garnica, 15, dreams of becoming a firefighter. "I know this technology would help people communicate with me if there was a fire," he said.
Lia Phagan, 11, who wants to become an artist, was interested to find out that deaf people used to have only one way to communicate over the phone — a device called a TTY, which exchanges basic text over phone lines using a modem. "I'd like to have an iPhone with voice recognition, so it would help me to speak more clearly," she said.
ZVRS donated a new videophone to the school. The company serves a growing market — roughly 34 million Americans have significant hearing loss, and nearly 6 million are profoundly deaf.
"Kids both deaf and hearing need to know what technology is out there so they can communicate with a broader world," said the school's director, Julie Rutenberg.