Representatives of advocacy groups, including organizations focused on veterans and Americans with hearing loss, met recently for the kick-off meeting of Clear2Connect, a new coalition devoted to preserving the right for Americans with hearing loss to access the technology they need to communicate using a phone – as is their right under the under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The coalition will educate about the importance of Internet Protocol Captioned Telephone Service (IP CTS) while urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to preserve access to this essential service.
Barbara Kelley, Executive Director of the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), kicked off the meeting with an explanation about hearing loss and why it affects so many people. HLAA is a national nonprofit organization for consumers with hearing loss who use technology to better communicate. “Incidence of hearing loss is growing,” Kelley said, “and according to a recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report, hearing loss is a primary health concern in the United States.”
Hearing loss increases as people age. Thanks to the Baby Boomer generation, every day in the United States an estimated 10,000 people turn 65. There are also other factors driving hearing loss in younger Americans, including veterans who sustain hearing loss while on active duty.
HLAA believes that hearing loss should be prevented, tested for, diagnosed, and treated since the health and social impacts extend beyond hearing problems. “We know that people who don’t manage their hearing loss by whatever way you want to manage it, with technology or some other way, can lead to isolation, depression, anxiety, and now there is a link between cognitive decline and hearing loss,” she said.
HLAA Director of Public Policy Lise Hamlin added that “when you’re a part of the world, if you’re active in your world, whether you use sign language or use your voice, there’s less chance of depression.” But she points out that many people with hearing loss may experience the loss later in life, they may not know sign language and they do not get hearing aids or use other sound amplification technologies. That makes it hard for people to communicate via the phone without any other visual cues for context or content of the conversation.
Internet Protocol Captioned Phone Service is an assistive technology that lets people with residual hearing use a telephone that also returns captions of what the person on the other line is saying. Hamlin, a user of caption phone service, explained that she has an internet connection and then also has a phone line. “The internet connection connects me to a caption assistant – someone in the middle – who gives me the text of what the other person is saying.”
There are several IP CTS providers and, each provides the service slightly differently. Some services train caption assistants to work with automatic speech recognition (ASR) software. Since everyone has a unique voice and speech patterns, the diversity of speech can often cause problems for unassisted ASR software. The technology is improving, but it can’t yet account for the many nuances present in human speech. That’s why caption assistants are trained to use the software to “re-voice” for callers on the other side of a telephone call. The assistants can also make real-time corrections to the captions
There’s a second method, according to Hamlin, where a captioning assistant listens to the conversation and types into a stenography machine to provide the real-time captions seen on the phone.
“I can tell you, if I didn’t have this, I probably wouldn’t have a job,” Hamlin said. “Because we need to talk on the phone. Not just to the grandkids, of course, I love to talk to them. I need it every day, I have it on my desk at work and one at home.”
The Clear2Connect Coalition was recently formed to educate interested organizations and people about IP CTS and why the FCC is considering changes to the program which could make it more difficult for Americans with hearing loss to qualify for or use this service. At the kick-off meeting, organizations including the Hearing Loss Association of America and the National Association of the Deaf shared their experiences advocating for access to IP CTS, which is a right for Americans with hearing loss under the ADA. The coalition is focused on some issues in front of policymakers today, including eligibility and quality control for the service.