For people who are living with severe to profound hearing loss, captioned phones can be an excellent tool to communicate with friends, family members and professional contacts. Captioned phones are especially important because phone conversations are often difficult for people with hearing loss as they are not able to rely on lip reading and contextual cues to derive meaning from conversations. Also, telephones typically do not transmit the full frequency range of speech, which can present a real challenge for anyone whose speech understanding is already compromised. Many people with untreated hearing loss shy away from using the phone or rely on others, often isolating themselves, which can contribute to loneliness, depression and other negative health effects.
The first telephone was invented in the late 1800s, and as phone service became increasingly widespread, it became clear that the telephone was a revolutionary device that would forever changed the scope of how we interact with others. However, for generations, people with hearing loss had to rely on others to make telephone calls for them.
Finally, in the 1960s, scientist Robert Weitbrecht's own profound hearing loss inspired him to develop a teletypewriter - also known as TTY. The TTY device became common in public places and homes, especially after the late 1970s and 1980s when more compact versions were created. TTYs allowed deaf people to make phone calls with others who had the devices. Eventually, relay services were developed so people with hearing loss using TTYs could communicate easily with people who had regular telephones.
When Title IV of the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, the government mandated that relay services be available nationwide so that people with hearing loss had the same access to telephone use as others.
The invention of TTY and the enactment of the ADA directly contributed to the development of captioned phones, and the first one - CapTel - was introduced in 2003.
How captioned phones work
Captioned telephones are special phones that can be used in a home or place of employment and have a built-in screen that displays text captions of the conversation during the call in near-real time. When a call is made, the captioned phone automatically connects to a Captioned Telephone Service (CTS). When the other person answers the phone, the caller hears whatever they say just like with a traditional telephone call. At the same time, the CTS uses advanced voice recognition technology and specially trained communications assistants to transcribe everything that is said said into captions, which appear in almost simultaneously on the phone display.
The CTS system is part of the Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS). Under the ADA, this service is offered free of charge to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. In-state phone calls are traditionally supported by TRS at the state level, while inter-state calls are paid for by the FCC's TRS program.
The FCC recently ruled that Internet Protocol Relay services can be funded as well. The only difference in IP CTS services is that they are routed through the Internet to the captioned telephone, rather than via phone lines.
Additionally, there are currently some smartphone apps available to provide captions when making a call. Other options can display telephone captions on a computer screen. Some of these options require fees or the purchase or services.
Captioned telephone users don't need to worry about privacy concerns. Captioned phone service providers are Federal Communications Commission (FCC)-regulated and have strict obligations for confidentiality for all users. FCC regulations governing relay services mandate that no records of any call content are recorded or stored. Captioned phones that use an internet connection utilize encrypted, FCC-regulated transcription which is considered very secure.
Who can use them
Anyone with a hearing loss that impairs telephone use may be an eligible candidate for a captioned phone. FCC regulations prohibit use of captioned telephone services by people who don't have a hearing loss that necessitates it. See a hearing care professional or a captioned telephone retailer for more information.
How to acquire a captioned phone
Professional certification may be required
In some programs, FCC regulations require a Professional Certification form signed by a hearing care practitioner or other health services professional to receive a free captioned telephone and captioned telephone service. The form certifies that an individual has a hearing loss and requires Captioned Telephone Service to communicate effectively by telephone.
There are several captioned telephone brands on the market that offer similar products but have found ways to differentiate. Here are a few:
CaptionCall has a sleek design, state-of-the-art captioning and has a telecoil loop connection for people who wear hearing aids. CaptionCall allows users to save conversations and save previous volume settings to maximize their time and create efficiency.
CapTel is a user-friendly captioned telephone that summons captions at the push of a button. Two options are available - one for people with WiFi and another that works with a standard analog phone.
The Ensemble by Clarity uses ClearCaptions technology. It has wireless connectivity, a 7-inch color touch-screen, conversation history and one-touch sizing to make text bigger.
What to expect
Captioned telephones are readily available, relatively inexpensive, easy to use and can be used with a hearing aid or with untreated hearing loss. These assistive listening devices are not perfect - there can be a slight lag in captions and the captioning may occasionally have minor inaccuracies. However, many users report feeling confident on the phone again after years of avoiding calls or just pretending they understood, and they finally feel connected to distant relatives and friends again. Many offices provide captioned phones for their deaf or hard of hearing employees.
1. TTY and TTY Relay Services, National Association of the Deaf, http://nad.org/issues/telephone-and-relay-services/relay-services/tty
2. The FCC and Captioned Telephone Services, HLAA, http://www.hearingloss.org/content/fcc-and-captioned-telephone-services-0
3. Internal Protocol Captioned Telephone Service, Federal Communications Commission, https://www.fcc.gov/guides/internet-protocol-ip-captioned-telephone-service