Phones aid hearing impaired

Technology makes phone conversations more realistic.
Thursday, July 1, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:39 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Kelly Mishler is a typical student at St. Louis’ Visitation Academy, but she can’t pick up the telephone to order a pizza like most of her friends. She loves to socialize as much as any 15-year-old, but her friends can’t call her on a regular telephone. Kelly is hearing impaired, the result of contracting encephalitis at age 18 months.

Her mother, Traci Mishler, would describe Kelly as successfully mainstreamed, a wonderful student at an academically challenging school, with normal speech and language despite a hearing loss of up to 70 percent.

Kelly is just one of many hearing-impaired people whose ability to communicate over the phone has historically been limited by technology.

The Mishlers tried various types of telephone services but were frustrated by them. “The technology was there,” Mishler said. “But the implementation has been lacking.”

As of today, the Captioned Telephone Voice Carryover, or CapTel, program will have the full support of the Missouri Public Service Commission. The commission’s acceptance of the technology brings the state-of-the-art technology into the Relay Missouri program and makes it available free to eligible hearing-impaired Missourians.

Here’s how it works: A caller uses his or her CapTel phone to call another party. The call is routed through the relay office and then to the called party. A trained operator repeats what was said, and the computer converts it to text. The text message is then sent over the telephone line onto the display screen of the CapTel phone user.

Voice-recognition technology provides almost instantaneous text- and voice-captioning, allowing the CapTel user to read the text and listen with any residual hearing they might have.

Mishler called the new technology “the best thing out there ... It allows the hearing-impaired population the opportunity for functional equivalency with their hearing counterparts, opening the opportunity for the hearing-impaired population to communicate over the telephone to both the hearing and hearing impaired.”

Her daughter, Kelly, is one of 100 Missourians who have been involved in a trial program for the CapTel system since February 2003.

“With CapTel, she is able to do the simple things that we take for granted,” Mishler said. “She can call up and order a pizza. Her 14- and 15-year-old friends can even call her without difficulty.”

Kelly and her mother, an audiologist and chairwoman of the Advisory Committee for Relay Missouri, had both been frustrated by the inefficient technology that preceded CapTel. One such system is known as TTY, through which users dial an 800 number that connects them to the relay office, which in turn puts the call through to the second party. The hearing party speaks to the operator, who then types the conversation into a computer and transmits it to the hearing-impaired person.

Mishler described the TTY system as “outrageously slow.” The operators average 60 typed words per minute, while normal speech and language averages about 150 words per minute, she said.

“People used to hang up on her because it took so long for her to respond and they didn’t know what was happening,” Mishler added. The CapTel system boasts a mere three- to four-second delay.

Barbara Garrison, superintendent of the Missouri School for the Deaf in Fulton, had similar praise for the new technological advancements of Relay Missouri. She said the advantage of CapTel and other video relay services is that they decrease the hearing-impaired person’s dependence on a third party.

“The problem with TTY is that you can’t interrupt someone,” Garrison said. “It isn’t a normal conversation. You have to wait until the other person is completely done speaking before you can interject. The new advancements are much more natural.”

CapTel users like Kelly must have good vocal skills, though. Sprint Government Account Executive Maggie Schoolar said CapTel is perfect for elderly people who have slowly lost their hearing but maintain most of their speech.

“The voice recognition as opposed to typing is of such benefit to them,” Schoolar said. “The old-style voice carryover was very slow.”

Sprint provides the telephone access lines for CapTel and other Relay Missouri services. The state reimburses Sprint on a minutes-used rate with money appropriated by the Public Service Commission. The commission also oversees the activities of Relay Missouri.

Relay Missouri was activated in 1991, under Missouri law, and is responsible for providing telephone accessibility to deaf, hard of hearing and speech-impaired Missourians. Becoming part of Relay Missouri will make CapTel available free to customers who have an active telephone line in their home, a certified disability that keeps them from using a standard telephone and an income of less than $60,000 per year.

Those who don’t meet eligibility requirements can buy one CapTel phone for $350 through the Missouri Assistive Technology Advisory Council, said Diane Golden, an employee of the council. The project is funded by a 10-cent monthly Relay Missouri surcharge on every landline telephone. Those interested in a CapTel phone can call the advisory council at either 800-647-8557 (voice) or 800-647-8558 (TTY).

The goal of Relay Missouri is to allow hearing-impaired people to have the same lifestyle and opportunities as everyone else by integrating them into society and helping them remain independent.

“I think it’s great that Missouri has committed to moving forward and supporting new technology,” Mishler said.

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