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May 15, 2007

Deaf, hard of hearing ask lawmakers for help accessing new technology

From: MetroWest Daily News - Framingham,MA,USA - May 15, 2007

By Priscilla Yeon/State House News Serice
State House News Service

BOSTON - With the help of sign-language interpreters, voice-recognition equipment and a stenographer, hearing-impaired individuals asked legislators Tuesday to pass a bill enabling them to use a captioned telephone service that is operated out of state.

The bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Michael Morrissey (D-Quincy), could not attend the hearing because he was at a funeral of a fallen soldier. Nini Silver, who testified at the Committee on Telecommunications, Energy and Utilities hearing, said Morrissey could not be there because "someone ran out of time."

"We are all running out of time," she added. Silver explained her father, who has brain cancer, lives in California and she can no longer recognize his voice over the phone due to her hearing impairment.

"Please allow me the time to talk to my father," said Silver.

Dubbed "CapTel," a captioned telephone service by Wisconsin-based Ultratec, the new technology would allow close to real-time voice-recognition conversations. According to supporters of the bill, there would not be an additional cost for telephone users if the state allows the new technology, but a Verizon official said he had concerns related to how the additional relay service would be funded.

Sprint Nextel's government affairs manager Gary Horewitz, whose company intends to provide the captioned telephone service to residents, said Massachusetts requires 100 percent of relay traffic to be carried within the state. He said with passage of the bill, residents could have access to the out-of-state relay service through his company.

Horewitz said the CapTel service would be paid through the existing 99-cent surcharge on all landline phones for current relay and enhanced 9-1-1 services. Because the new technology would make phone conversations more efficient by 40 to 50 percent, relay service users would spend less time on the phone.

Heidi Reed, commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, urged legislators to pass the bill. With the help of an interpreter, Reed said hearing-impaired consumers rely on older technological devices that delay the conversation and require them to type on a special phone.

She said small business owners and other hard-of-hearing people need to access to more effective phone services.

"Captioned telephone will reduce isolation and promote the well-being among the deaf and hard of hearing community," said Reed. She said Ultratec is the only provider of the captioned services.

Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry (D-Dorchester) said it would be interesting to look into the possibility of Massachusetts starting its own captioned telephone services, which would also help create jobs, she added.

Sen. Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester) said she supported the idea of having the state produce a similar kind of technology. "We really are limiting ourselves. I hope we can expand this," said Chandler.

Ann Marie Killilea said she has been a nurse for 30 years. In January of 1989 she started losing her hearing and she lost three nursing jobs subsequently. When she was working at a hospital, she asked for a voice-recognition phone but the hospital was concerned about patient confidentiality.

"As you can see I am not deaf and I am not inaudible," said Killilea, who said with the proper technology, she can continue to be a nurse. "As a nurse I need to communicate. I always wanted to be a nurse."

Laura Meier, president of the Hearing Loss Association's Greater Boston Chapter, said Cap Tel allows phone users to turn on and off captions in case people are sharing telephones with other members of the family who are not hard of hearing.

Joe Zukowski, Verizon vice president of government affairs, expressed concerns about the bill but supports Cap Tel service to Massachusetts consumers. Zukowski said the bill does not provide any certainty the additional service would be adequately funded.

The bill is a re-file from the last two-year session. The committee re-drafted the bill and it died in the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Morrissey re-filed the redrafted version of the bill this year. Committee Co-chair Rep. Brian Dempsey (D-Haverhill) told the News Service in last year's session there were some questions about the cost and implementation of Cap Tel services.

"Certainly there is a significant need," said Dempsey. "We're certainly sensitive to that."

He said he heard "powerful testimonies" today. Asked if the committee planned to report the bill favorably this time, Dempsey said: "The testimonies are moving and certainly it will have an impact on the committee."

© 2007 MetroWest Daily News