There was a time, not so very long ago, when universal phone service would have seemed the craziest of notions.

Nowadays, of course, contacting a friend, neighbor, relative, or medical professional is only a matter of pushing a few buttons. For most people, that is. But for the hearing or speech impaired, the simple task of using a standard telephone is literally impossible.Thanks to the 1987 Utah Legislature, the hearing and speech impaired now may communicate via telephone lines. By tacking a 3-cent monthly surcharge onto telephone bills, lawmakers were able to fund a telephone relay system that the speech and hearing impaired can access through Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf - a keyboard and display attached to a telephone.

In fact, the system works too well: The number of those using the service has now outstripped the system's capacity. The 14 operators at the relay station are now handling about 8,000 calls a month. During peak periods, it takes up to 10 minutes to complete a call.

What's needed, obviously, is more money. Relay service officials say they need to double the surcharge and lawmakers are preparing legislation that would remove the 3 cent cap.

But why should everyone help pay for a service that helps only a small portion of the population? The answer is simple: Everyone benefits when more people are added to the telephone system. And system workers estimate up to 25 percent of the calls are from people who can hear.

But, financial rationales aside, telephone service has become a virtual necessity for anyone to function effectively in the modern world. To deny telephone service to deaf and speech impaired individuals would be to strand them indefinitely in a technologically less sophisticated past.