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July 19, 2004

Turning calls into captions

From: Rocky Mountain News, CO - Jul 19, 2004

CapTel service eases phone use for those with hearing losses

By Jeff Smith, Rocky Mountain News
July 19, 2004

Debbie Mohney of Boulder uses a new captioned telephone service especially when talking to friends or relatives who are soft-spoken or tend to mumble.

"I can miss out on a great deal of speech especially when not having visual cues," said Mohney, who has suffered all her life from high-frequency hearing loss.

The new service, which like captioned television displays the conversation word for word on a five-line screen, resolves that issue.

"It helps make the conversation go smoother," said Mohney, state coordinator for the nonprofit group Self Help for Hard of Hearing People. "It's definitely a good option for people who want to be able to use the phone like a normal-hearing person."

Captioned telephone service, or CapTel, is one of the latest technologies to address the hearing impaired who also possess speech skills.

Sprint's Relay Colorado unit started offering the service in March in Colorado in both English and Spanish under an exclusive contract with the state. Madison, Wis.-based Ultratec developed the technology and makes the special phones.

Terry Bote, spokesman for the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, said the service especially has the potential of helping hard-of- hearing individuals who wouldn't think of using traditional relay services - in which conversations are typed and read using a typewriter- like TTY device.

The potential market is larger than one might think.

Approximately 337,000 people in Colorado, or 8.4 percent of the population, were considered hard of hearing in 2002, according to the Colorado Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. That compares with about 40,000 deaf people.

Van Scheppach, Sprint's account manager for the service, calls CapTel "long overdue" for helping those individuals.

Scheppach, who has had hearing loss since birth, uses the CapTel service himself and said it helps eliminate misunderstandings and the need to repeatedly go "Huh? What did you say?" during telephone conversations.

He said one of the best features is the ability to retrieve hard-to-understand voice mails as word-for- word captions. The user also can scroll back to, for example, catch directions or other information missed the first time.

Scheppach said the service went through a year of testing in nine states and is being rolled out in other states as well. Modifications along the way included making the background darker so the captions were easier to read, he said.

The CapTel service includes a special telephone made by Ultratec that amplifies conversations and has a built-in display screen.

One advantage is the ability to have near-simultaneous conversations, Bote said.

A traditional relay system is slowed by the amount of time it takes for a hearing-impaired or deaf person to type in a message.

With CapTel, a specially trained operator at a call center transcribes at nearly real time the conversation using the latest voice-recognition software.

The phone costs $350 or is available free to those who meet income requirements.

The service itself is free, paid out of a special state fund supported by a 6-cent monthly surcharge on customers of land-line telecommunications carriers.

By agreement, Sprint is limited to signing up 100 customers a month in Colorado for the first two years so that the growth of the program can be coordinated with the captioning service and with the state. The program's popularity then will be assessed, and budgets and surcharges will be modified if necessary.

"The best will be when the service shows up on cell phones," Scheppach said. He said he expects that to occur by year-end 2005.

Smooth conversations

• What: Captioned Telephone Service, or CapTel

• For: Hard-of-hearing or deaf people who possess speech skills

• How it works: An operator transcribes the conversation word for word in English or Spanish using the latest voice-recognition software. Using a special phone, a hard-of-hearing person can listen to an amplified conversation as well as read captions displayed five lines at a time on a built-in screen.

• Cost: $350 for phone (free to income-eligible); no charge for service.

• For more information: Contact Van Scheppach, Sprint Relay Colorado, at or 303-801-3813.

Copyright 2004, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.