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DHHCAN Meeting Highlights Hearing Health Advocacy Issues

By Susan Boswell

Future technology to access 911, hearing health advocacy efforts and issues of concern to seniors who are deaf and hard of hearing were the focus of presentations at a recent annual retreat of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Consumer Action Network (DHHCAN).

AG Bell ensures that the needs of children and adults who use listening and spoken language are represented on Capitol Hill as public policy is shaped by participating in various coalitions representing consumers and professionals in the hearing health arena. The DHHCAN is a national coalition of organizations representing the interests of consumers who are deaf and hard of hearing on public policy and other issues related to improving the rights of people who are deaf and hard of hearing in their quality of life, affirming their right to consumer leadership, self-representation, and equal access to education, employment, community life, communication and technology.

The February 9, 2013 retreat highlighted the following key public policy and access issues:

Technology Access

The Technology Access Program (TAP) at Gallaudet University evaluates technology to determine the roadblocks that exist for technology access and develops new technology. The group informs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of the possibilities of technology and advocates for greater access for consumers who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Christian Vogler, Ph.D., director of the Gallaudet TAP, highlighted how antiquated the TTY has become and noted that many college-age students who are deaf and hard of hearing had never used a TTY and do not know what it is. However, TTYs allow for real-time text—a feature that TAP is hoping to achieve with instant messaging applications.

TAP also is working on enabling “total conversation” for videoconferencing to allow consumers who would like to use computer-assisted real-time captioning (CART) along with video and audio access to the teleconference.

In the future, consumers also may be able to make emergency calls to 911 using total conversation through the efforts to develop and implement next-generation 911 (NG-911). The technology standards for NG-911 have been approved, but the technology is not yet ready for implementation. Future technology development may allow consumers to access 911 through computer or mobile applications that combine video, audio and text-based communication for greater ease of communication. However, funding for Public Safety Access Programs (PSAPs) to implement the equipment for NG911 total communication will be an issue because many emergency call centers do not have the funds to upgrade their equipment to facilitate these types of calls.

Ability to text 911 is and issue for consumers with and without typical hearing. During the Virginia Tech shooting, people tried for text 911 because they didn’t want to use their voice to call for fear they would be shot – but these texts were never received because the technology is unavailable. The FCC announced that the major wireless carriers will have systems in place by May 14, 2015 to implement text-to-911. However, this does not mean that all consumers will be able to text 911 from anywhere because not all PSAPs will have the necessary equipment.

For consumers who are hard of hearing, voice access to the telephone also is critical for communication. Telephones typically transmit frequencies from 300-3,000 Hz because research shows that these frequencies are vital for speech understanding.  The Apple iPhone 5 has wideband audio transmission and, with the right carrier, consumers should be able to hear better because a greater range of frequencies are being transmitted. This is especially true for consumers who use telecoils to access the telephone. The actual signal perceived, however, depends on the ability of the hearing aid to transmit high frequencies. In addition, beginning next year, every mobile phone will be able to display captioning.

Consumers are currently challenging copyright law to gain greater access to captioning. Copyright law currently prevents carrying the captions from the TV to the Internet. However, under the concept of “fair use” the captions can be used. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) states that it is illegal to break copyright protections for movies. Advocacy groups are requesting waivers from the DMCA, which have been granted for research purposes. For individuals who are deaf-blind, access to closed captioning is particularly important because it allows adjustment to the size and color of the font and allows captioning to be passed through a Braille reader.

Captioned Telephones

Captioned telephones have taken off with a large increase in the number of minutes used, according to Lise Hamlin, director of public policy for the Hearing Loss Association of America. The FCC and the TRS fund administrator project increases, which put the TRS fund in jeopardy. The FCC perceives this is due to fraud because providers have given out free phone equipment and audiologists have received referral fees. The FCC has just put out a Notice of Public Rulemaking (NPRM) on the issue and is seeking public comment.

Hamlin also highlighted efforts to encourage audiologists to unbundle cost of the hearing aid from the cost of services, which is a departure from the existing model in which the cost of the hearing aid is bundled with the cost of follow-up services. HLAA advocates for greater transparency of costs. This would include information provided to consumers about which companies a particular provider works with and the fees for the return of the hearing aid, in the event that the consumer does not move forward with a purchase.

Issues of Concern to Seniors who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Issues of concern to individuals as they age with hearing loss were highlighted by Nancy Rarus, a member of the board of directors for Deaf Seniors of America. She raised the need for seniors to access life alert systems and raised issues related to the information and instructions provided to life alert. For those with limited incomes, the cost of interpreters and other accommodations for communication access can be an issue, and agencies which care for seniors are not always aware of how to access communication accommodations. In addition, there is a greater need for professionals experienced in the mental health needs of individual s who are deaf and hard of hearing, particularly those who are older.