For people with hearing loss, talking on a standard phone can be challenging, even with hearing aids or cochlear implants. Telephones typically do not transmit the full frequency range of speech, which can present a challenge for anyone, but especially people who don't hear well. 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.
Fortunately, captioned phones and captioned smartphone apps can help make it easier to talk on the phone. Thanks to government funding, these phones and apps can be obtained for either free or steeply discounted.
How phone captioning works
When a call is made, the captioned phone (landline or via the app) 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 into captions, which appear almost simultaneously on the phone display.
Are captioned phones and caption apps free?
Thanks to the ADA guidelines for hearing loss, it is possible to get free captioning services, and in many cases, the phone itself will be free or discounted (landline only). This is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Telephone Relay Services.
To get these free services, you generally have to register to use and self-certify that you have hearing loss that impairs your ability to use a standard phone. Federal regulations prohibit the use of captioned telephone services by people who don't have a hearing loss that necessitates it.
Note that this service is a little different than IP (internet protocol) Relay Service, which allows you to use a similar service, but via your smartphone or other device. You still have to pay for the smartphone separately.
How do I get one?
You can ask your hearing care provider for help, or sign up directly with a captioned telephone retailer (see below). Many people qualify for special state programs where they can obtain a captioned phone at a reduced rate or for free.
Some captioned telephone providers offer free delivery as well as installation, set-up and user training at no charge.
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 a person has hearing loss.
What to expect
Captioned telephones are readily available, relatively inexpensive, easy to use and can be used with hearing aids or without. 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.
It varies on the model, but many captions phones provide an answering machine/voicemail service that you can save and review later, a custom phone book to store favorites, visual alerts like a bright flashing light for an incoming call, and the ability to make the font size bigger or smaller, or on a bright or dark background.
Types of captioned phones and apps
There are several participating phone companies that provide captioned phones and apps for smartphone and tablets. Some of the most well-known include:
CapTel is a user-friendly captioned telephone that summons captions at the push of a button. Some models are made for people with low vision, too. Hamilton CapTel Mobile Apps is their smartphone version.
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. Olelo is their mobile app.
ClearCaptions has an amplified home phone that displays captions in near real-time on a large 8-inch color touchscreen. The ClearCaptions Mobile app offers call captioning and a personalized ClearCaptions Number.
Note: This is not a comprehensive list of captioned phone/app providers. Your hearing care provider may recommend a different service.
How does calling 911 work?
Be sure to read your phone's manual for specific guidelines that cannot be covered here. In general, all 911 calls placed through a captioned phone will be directly connected to an emergency dispatcher. The calls may not be captioned in the same manner as your phone's other captioned calls. The dispatcher can hear you, and can type instructions to you if you cannot hear them.
Some models of captioned phones come with Bluetooth technology, which allows you to listens to conversations on a a headset or neckloop.
Troubleshooting your captioned phone
For any specific problems, consult your phone's manual. Four reasons your phone may not work correctly include:
Are my calls private?
Yes. FCC-regulated captioned providers must follow strict privacy rules and are not allowed to store call content.
How to get help
If you're not sure which phone would work best for you, reaching out to a a local hearing care professional. They can help you choose all of the best solutions including information to get a captioned phone, hearing aids and other accessories to get you connected to life again.
There are many smartphone apps that have captioning abilities, and new ones get added frequently. We've rounded up a list of some of the more popular caption apps in this article.