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November 28, 2004

New, captioned telephone is making it easier for the deaf and hard-of-hearing to communicate

From: The Free Lance-Star - Fredericksburg,VA,USA - Nov 28, 2004

New, captioned telephone is making it easier for the deaf and hard-of-hearing to communicate


Date published: 11/28/2004

YLER CROWELL was using her new phone in the kitchen, talking with her mother, who was upstairs on a cell phone.

"What did you do at school today?" Samantha Crowell began.

"I started writing in my spelling journal, then we did math and P.E.," replied 7-year-old Tyler.

"What do you want for dinner?" Samantha Crowell asked.

"Do we have any hot dog buns?" Tyler replied.

Their conversation was similar to those that take place in other homes each day throughout the region. What made it unique was the phone that Tyler was using.

Samantha Crowell could hear her daughter's words, but Tyler is nearly deaf and heard little of what her mother said. She relied on the text display of her CapTel phone to understand what her mother was saying.

For Tyler and thousands of other deaf and hard-of-hearing people, the CapTel phone is a welcome advance in communications technology. For the first time, they can more fully experience the simple pleasures of a phone call.

"There may be something better than this, but I can't imagine what it would be," said Mary Montanaro, a CapTel user who lives in Stafford County.

CapTel is the next generation in phones for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. It offers a speedier, more natural conversation, done without the obvious intervention of an operator.

Virginia's 700,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing people have been able to use a telephone at least since the 1970s, when the TTY system started. At first, TTY users could talk only with other users. In 1991, with the start of the Virginia Relay system, they could talk with traditional phone users.

With TTY, however, phone calls go through an operator, who types the hearing person's spoken words and speaks the deaf person's typed responses. The deaf person has no direct contact with the person on the other end of the line.

Users complain that the system is cumbersome, and they dislike sharing their private lives with an operator.

"You can't have a personal conversation," Samantha Crowell said.

The CapTel phone is similar, with one major improvement: The operator is now transparent, a silent partner in the exchange.

"It's more like a normal conversation," said Arva Priola, outreach coordinator for the deaf and hard of hearing at the disAbility Resource Center in Fredericksburg.

Virginia is one of 25 states to offer the service. The system became operational in April after a lengthy trial.

The Virginia Department for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is giving away 600 of the phones to eligible users, said Clayton Bowen, the department's outreach manager. So far, more than 350 people in Virginia--including about 30 to 40 in the Fredericksburg area--have received the phones.

The CapTel phone is aimed at the millions of Americans who, like Montanaro and Tyler Crowell, have little or no hearing but are able to speak.

Montanaro, 80, lives with her son and daughter-in-law in North Stafford. She began losing her hearing while in her 20s. By the time she was about 50, she could no longer use the telephone, and by the time she reached 75, she had become nearly completely deaf.

In the past, whenever she needed to use the phone, she walked three blocks to the home of a friend, who made the call for her.

"I really was blessed to have someone who was that patient and willing," Montanaro said.

She was an early user of the TTY system and a participant in the CapTel trial. Now she uses the captioned phone almost exclusively.

When she wants to make a call, she dials the number and speaks directly to the person on the other end. When the other person replies, a silent operator, based in Wisconsin, listens to the words and "re-voices" them into a computer. Voice-recognition software translates them into text and sends them to the display screen on Montanaro's phone.

"If you can imagine the captions on a television, it's very similar," said Bowen of the VDDHH.

Montanaro receives the captions about three seconds after hearing the caller's voice.

"There is a slight pause between what you say and my answer," Montanaro said. "That seems to work well for most people."

Montanaro said she is hearing her callers for the first time, though she cannot understand their words.

"There are inflections in the voice that you can grasp," she said.

The system works the same way if someone calls her. The person dials a toll-free number and is prompted to dial her number.

The phone itself is a table-top model with a five-line display screen. Montanaro has placed her phone on an end table in the living room. The Crowells have theirs on the kitchen counter.

Tyler Crowell is a second-grader at Hampton Oaks Elementary School in North Stafford. She began losing hearing in both ears about three years ago. Her parents, Scott and Samantha Crowell, have no idea why, though they suspect it may be an inherited condition.

Her audiologist has measured the loss at about five decibels every three months.

"It's aggressive," Samantha Crowell said.

Tyler has hearing aids in both ears and supplements what she hears by reading lips.

She has never used the TTY system, but because she is a good reader, she was eligible to receive a free CapTel phone from the state.

Samantha Crowell said she cannot imagine Tyler and her friends using the TTY system. Young girls are unlikely to confide in one another if they must talk first to an operator, she said.

The silent operator will probably remain a part of the CapTel system until voice-recognition software improves. However, that development may be years away, Priola said.

The next advance may be wireless CapTel service, Bowen said. Soon, users may be able to take their captioned phones with them anywhere.

For more information about the CapTel phone or about local programs for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, contact Arva Priola at 540/373-2559 (voice), 540/373-5890 (TTY) or

To reach JIM HALL: 540/374-5433

Date published: 11/28/2004

Copyright 2004, The Free Lance-Star Publishing Co. of Fredericksburg, Va.