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October 12, 2002

Program throws lifeline to disabled

From: Tri-Valley Herald, CA
Oct. 12, 2002

Center in Oakland provides free phones
By Suzanne Bohan

In 1993, Ralph Hager retired from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, after a long career as a nuclear physicist. With his free time, the avid bicyclist began riding regularly, and in 1994, took a trip down Claremont Avenue in Oakland.

On the steep grade, his front tire suddenly went flat after hitting an object. Hager smashed to the ground, and even though he was wearing a helmet, he severely damaged his upper spinal column, leaving his arms and legs paralyzed. He's now only able to move his head and one shoulder slightly.

Among all the devastation the accident wrought in his life, one small freedom was quickly restored to him through a state-run program that provides free specialized phones to those with disabilities, ranging from the severe restrictions like those faced by Hager to the simpler challenges of hearing loss.

Hager, 63, is among 400,000 Californians participating in the California Telephone Access Program. At least three million are probably eligible to get free equipment under the plan, according to U.S. Census estimates of the number of Californians with disabilities.

This week in Oakland, a new service center for the program -- one of six statewide -- celebrated its grand opening. Inside, staff worked with clients to select equipment from among the more than 60 phones and devices offered. Since the majority of participants have hearing difficulties, the most popular models are those that can ring so loudly -- some up to 110 decibels, as loud as a rock concert from the front row -- that they startle visitors. Others have amplifiers in the earpiece that ramp up the volume of a caller's voice.

Alma Paladini, 88, has slowly been losing her hearing, and she visited the center to get a phone to help her cope with the change. "There are a number of them that will help me as it gets worse, that I know," the Alameda resident said as she looked over a variety of models on display.

Sometimes Lena Cheng, a 64-year-old Oakland resident, said she can't even hear the phone ring. Cheng lost all hearing in her right ear, and 50 percent in her left ear. A friend told her she could buy a phone with an amplifier, but on her Social Security disability income, she knew she couldn't afford it. But on Wednesday, she left smiling, carrying a plastic bag filled with equipment.

Other phones have quarter-sized buttons affixed with large numbers or, for those with cognitive impairments, speed-dial buttons that display photos of friends and family. People with limited mobility or who are paralyzed are equipped with specialized phones that are activated by either blowing on a sensor, hitting a "pillow switch" with their head, or pressing a lever with a mouthstick. The phones would cost from $100 to $4,000 to purchase, according to Jennifer Minore, a supervisor with the program's Northern California region. The equipment is officially on loan, but users can keep them indefinitely. For those who are deaf, the program offers a "relay" system that employs an operator to act as an intermediary between the two parties in a phone conversation. The operator relays typed messages, which are displayed on phones equipped with text monitors, between those who are deaf. If one party can hear, the operator switches between relaying text and spoken messages. The program is open to any state resident whose doctor will attest that a disability or hearing loss has impeded the applicant's ability to use a phone. It falls under the Deaf and Disabled Telecommunications Program, which is funded by a small surcharge on Californians' telephone bills.

In 2002, consumers were charged 0.48 percent of their total charges for services, extra features and in-state phone calls, although this month the rate dropped to 0.30 percent. The surcharge appears on residential and business customers' phone bills under the heading "CA Relay Service and Communications Devices Fund."

Most clients come to the service center, but field personnel also visit the homes of those with severe mobility difficulties to install the equipment.

On Thursday, Jewel Jaurigur, a supervisor from the Oakland office, visited Hager in the Oakland home he shares with his wife to test devices that turn on a specialized phone.

Hager joined the program shortly after his 1994 accident, and was equipped with a phone he could activate from his wheelchair. But sores confined him to bed a year ago, and he's since relied on his home care worker to place or answer calls. With the newly installed device, he's once again free to make that connection on his own.

For more information on the Deaf and Disabled Telecommunications Program, call (800) 806-1191 or visit

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