Speaking with a New Voice

Writer: Tiffany Whisner, Coles Marketing

Pick up your phone. Dial a number. Talk to someone. You listen to them talk back. Seems easy, doesn’t it? Not for everyone.

Sierra_Rasmussen.jpgFor many years, a person with impaired hearing or speech had to use text telephones, also known as TTY, in order to communicate over the phone. This involved using a relay service and/or a keypad and display to type messages back and forth instead of talking and listening.

InTRAC and Easter Seals Crossroads are trying to change all that with a new pilot program.

Can you hear me now? Yes, we can.

 

Check the hardware, fix the reception

The first teletypewriter (TTY) was invented by deaf scientist Robert Weitbrecht in 1964. And the first relay service was established in 1974 by Converse Communications of Connecticut.

One of the major drawbacks was both phones in the conversation had to be equipped with TTY. Or if one of the people on the conversation was using speech, a live operator would have to participate in the call and type out their words into text. It was also very expensive, and many people couldn’t afford the roughly $500 cost.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) required phone companies to provide a relay service for Deaf, hard of hearing and speech impaired. InTRAC was created in Indiana to represent the interests of the phone companies to comply with that law. Eventually, in 1996, the InTRAC board of directors voted to loan the telephone equipment that users couldn’t afford to enable them to enjoy the Relay Indiana service.

Sierra_Rasmussen5.jpg“The speech disabled had to use TTY, which is now outdated and has long been replaced by computers, smartphones and tablets for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities,” said Andy Leffler, assistant director at Relay Indiana, a service of Indiana Telephone Relay Access Corporation (InTRAC). “Since TTY was invented more than 60 years ago and technology has come such a long way, I felt it was time for InTRAC to offer our speech disabled users a better choice.”

Relay Indiana is a free service that provides full telecommunications accessibility to people who are deaf, hard of hearing or speech impaired.

This service allows users with special telecommunication devices to communicate with standard users through specially-trained Relay Operators. InTRAC also provides free, loaned equipment to those who qualify.

Two services offered through Relay Indiana include Speech-to-Speech (STS) relay and Hearing Carry Over (HCO).

“STS relay provides a communication assistant (CA) for people with a speech disability who have difficulty being understood on the telephone,” Leffler said. “A specially-trained relay operator repeats the words of the person with the speech disability, or there is a synthesizer output to the other party. No special equipment is needed to use this service.”

“HCO allows a person who is speech-disabled but can hear to use their hearing while sending responses to a person who is hearing via the HCO user’s typed text using TTY,” Leffler continued. “The operator voices the HCO user’s typed messages, and then the HCO user picks up the handset and listens to the other voice user’s response.”

When explained, it all sounds a bit confusing. But now there’s an effort to clear up the fuzzy connection.

Speeding up the signal

Part of the Deaf community, Leffler has worked for several relay providers doing outreach activities to promote the free telephone relay service known as 7-1-1. He has a degree in business management from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the only liberal arts university for the deaf and hard of hearing in the world.

“With better technology now available, it is making augmentative and alternative communication a lot easier to use and more accessible,” he said. “That means someone can take advantage of using an iPad with appropriately-chosen apps that can be updated easily instead of an outdated specialized piece of phone equipment that probably costs five times the amount.”

Leffler is working with Craig Burns, CAS, assistive technology specialist with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads, on an iPad distribution program.

“We have begun a unique partnership with this pilot program as we aim to loan twenty-five iPads to the speech disabled within a year as approved by the board of directors,” Leffler said. “If the program is successful, we hope to expand the iPad program to include the deaf and hard of hearing too.”

More than 15 states are actively loaning and distributing iPads, and Leffler said the Hoosier State is happy to jump aboard.

“At this point, it’s just a pilot program,” Burns said. “I’m working with individuals who have been referred to InTRAC from various sources throughout the community. My responsibility is to meet with the person and identify what size iPad they want and the best augmentative communication applications to use for their specific language and access capabilities and challenges.”

Then Burns connects with Leffler to get the customized order in through InTRAC, and when the order arrives at Easter Seals Crossroads, Burns takes the technology back to the individual and works with them on how to use it.

“I teach them how to make changes to the applications and how to make phone calls and contact the people they need to reach,” Burns said. So far, he’s helped provide two participants with their own iPad and iBox, which will run the AAC apps to have the iPad speak for them. And two more orders are on the way.

Burns has a passion for helping people and has worked in the assistive technology (AT) field since 1996. He enjoys matching technology solutions to an individual’s abilities and helping them reach their goals with that technology. Now he is tapping into a new personal mission.

“Relay Indiana has been an option for those people who are deaf and hard of hearing, but this pilot program is starting by targeting the nonverbal community,” Burns said. “Many of these people can hear but can’t speak, so being able to make a phone call presents its own individual obstacles. The apps we can show them can be preprogrammed with many common questions and responses, so a more natural-sounding computer-generated voice speaks for them.”

This allows people with a speech disability to communicate with a speaking person — minus the third-party interference.

It’s giving a new voice to those without.

 

One word at a time

“We want to determine how much of a need and desire there is for this program in the community,” Burns said. “It will be available to those people with a hearing impairment, but we’ve taken a step further by starting with people who are nonverbal. They need a way to communicate too.”

Having worked with DynaVox for almost a decade, Burns has seen the world of speech-generating and augmentative communication devices overcome hurdles and transition through many milestones.

“From static to dynamic displays and recorded to synthesized speech, helping people find answers to their speech and language challenges is something I love to do,” Burns said. “And with the launch of the iPhone and iPad, it really brought augmentative communication to the general market and made finding solutions more accessible to those who need them.”

The new InTRAC program allows the opportunity for each person’s iPad to be customized.

“Some apps tend to be better for those who struggle with language,” Burns said. “A person with ALS may have lost the ability to speak but they are language competent, meaning they have written and talked before. Someone else may need to talk on the phone but has had a speech impairment since birth. Now I can help each individual set up the iPad with the different language apps that will help them the most.”

Recipients can choose between the iPad Air and the iPad Mini.

“They choose which device will best suit their needs, and then we talk about the different software options,” Burns said. “I show them the applications, and we decide what challenges they have and which apps will work best.”

One of the most-requested apps is Verbally. It’s a comprehensive assisted speech solution for the iPad. It is an AAC app for speaking unique thoughts and feelings, designed to minimize keystrokes and maximize ease and speed.

“It uses a QWERTY keyboard, and there is word prediction built into the app,” Burns said. “The user can choose a specific word just by touching it, saving time and building a message quickly and more efficiently. There is a phrase-storing capability, giving the user the ability to select certain preset phrases like ‘nice to meet you’ or ‘I’m using this device to communicate; please be patient.’”

Another app is Proloquo2Go, a symbol-supported communication app with many natural-sounding text-to-speech voices, three complete research-based vocabularies, more than 10,000 up-to-date symbols, advanced word prediction, multi-user support and the ability to fully customize vocabularies to meet the needs of individual users from beginning symbolic communication to full literacy.

Sono Flex is an AAC vocabulary app that turns symbols into clear speech. It combines the benefits of structure and flexibility, providing a framework for language development, matching individual and situational communication needs.

“Each user has the choice of device and apps, and then different voices and messages can be chosen and stored,” Burns said. “It really is allowing people who haven’t been able to communicate with others before the chance to finally do so.”

 

A desire to be heard

“InTRAC is a member of a national organization called Telecommunication Equipment Distribution Program Association, and it is where we learned about better options available for the speech disabled and how other states have implemented and run the iPad distribution program,” Leffler said. “InTRAC is very fortunate to be working with a vendor that has close ties with Apple, and they have a licensing agreement that allows us to do a lot more with iPads than other vendors.”

Plus, with the iPad, the apps will automatically update or upgrade without the customer being required to download the latest app or return their devices to the factory for upgrades.

InTRAC secured the funds for the pilot program and selected Easter Seals Crossroads to help implement it. The program began in late 2015 and has 25 units available for applicants.

“I hope we fill all twenty-five orders and can extend the program in the coming years,” Burns said. “I enjoy meeting the people and providing services that can help them live their lives more fully and independently. That’s right up my alley.”

Interested applicants should contact InTRAC at 1-877-446-8722 or the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads at 1-888-466-1314 to learn more about the program.

“It’s obvious there’s a need,” Burns said. “There are people who have been verbal for years and because of their circumstances they aren’t able to speak anymore. They need and want to be able to talk to someone on the phone. How do they get hold of someone in an emergency? How do they talk to family members who are out of town? They have a sincere interest in being able to communicate.”

“People need this device and the capability to communicate with others,” he continued. “They are excited for the possibilities and potential of this program, and it’s so rewarding to help those who have lost their words to get them back.”

To learn more about the pilot program with InTRAC, please contact the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads at 1-888-466-1314.