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A case for closed captioned telephones

Martin, Robert L. PhD

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000396589.82612.c8

Robert L. Martin, PhD, has been a Dispensing Audiologist in private practice in the San Diego area for more than 30 years. He has been writing Nuts & Bolts since 1989. Readers may contact Dr. Martin at 7750 University Avenue, La Mesa, CA 91941.



Do you know about closed captioned telephones and the free service that provides automatic captioning? Like closed captioning for the TV, closed captioning telephones display transcriptions of a caller's words in easy-to-read text. No more guessing what the caller is saying: people with marked hearing loss will now be able to read their conversations. This new concept will make a huge improvement in the quality of patients' lives.

Most closed captioning for movies is done professionally. The words are all correct and the captions are printed across the bottom of the screen, making it easy to understand everything that is said. Closed captioning for a live television program, however, is hit or miss. The transcription is usually done using voice recognition software and the quality is sometimes good and other times not so good.

I had never heard of closed captioned telephones until two months ago, although they have been around for several years. I now own one. A large screen on the top of the telephone automatically displays captions and the caller is not aware that you are using a captioning service. You simply have a normal telephone conversation. You can hear what the caller is saying, and if you miss anything, you can read the conversation. The phone has the capacity to retain 500 lines of captions in its memory. If you miss something, you can scroll back, re-read it, and copy it down if necessary.

There are several types of closed captioned telephones and services available. I first want to talk about the type that I have, a CapTel 800i (short for captioned telephone). To use the phone, you need a phone line and high-speed Internet connection which connects you to a free professional captioning service.

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Let's suppose I am hard of hearing and I want to call a friend. When I (the patient) pick up my phone and dial a number, the phone alerts the captioning service that I am making a phone call. When the person I am calling answers the telephone, the “operator” at the captioning services hears everything that the person on the other line says.

The captioning operator uses high-speed, professional-grade captioning software that has been trained to the individual's voice. The operator simply repeats what the person is saying and the software instantly creates the text and displays the words on the phone. High-quality captions are created almost automatically with about a two-second delay, and are available in English or Spanish.

Captioning operators are trained to convey the entire conversation as accurately as possible. When we talk, we make a variety of sounds, laughs, noises, and expressions, like uh-huh, na, a-ha, etc. The operator includes all of these expressions and also provides specific notes if words are not intelligible. The service is invaluable when addresses, times, phone numbers, and technical information are transcribed accurately for the patient.

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The Basics

  • The phone includes an amplifier that increases the level of the signal about 40 dB.
  • The cost of the phone is about $100.
  • The captioning service is free nationwide. Most states provide services for the hearing impaired, offering phones at either free or reduced rates for qualifying individuals.
  • The captions can easily be turned on or off at any time during a call.
  • The screen font is in large, easy-to-read type.
  • The phone has Caller ID.
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Other Services

WebCapTel is an Internet site that provides automatic telephone captioning. The service can be used with any telephone—even a cell phone, for example—and calls are placed through the online system. Using this service, the captions for the telephone call are seen in the Internet browser window on the computer.

Another CapTel model, the CapTel 800, is also available. Instead of using the Internet to connect to the free captioning service, it works with traditional standard analog telephone lines or a DSL line with an appropriate filter. It can be set up using one or two phone lines. If it's used in one-line mode, callers need to dial the captioning service first, and then enter the patient's phone number in order for captions to be provided during the call. Two-line mode works identically to the CapTel 800i, where callers dial the patient directly and captions appear.

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When I first attempted to install the CapTel 800i phone in my house, I realized that my phone connections were in one room and my high-speed Internet connection was in another. This arrangement does not work. You need both a phone line and a high-speed Internet line in the same location. I wanted to solve this problem by using a wireless Internet card, but was advised that the system needs a “hard-wired” Internet connection to maintain speed and accuracy.

There are several solutions to this problem. One is to have the Internet or telephone provider run a new line. You can also run your own line, using an extension cable attached to your Internet modem, or you can use an in-house system like a powerline ethernet adapter kit which uses the electrical power lines in your house. One unit plugs into your Internet modem and a power outlet close by. The other unit plugs into the power outlet near the phone and attaches the line to the phone. The Internet signal is then transferred over the power lines in the house from the computer modem to the telephone.

So far, I've found that closed captioned telephones are great. They allow people with very poor hearing to experience high-quality, accurate communication via a telephone, fulfilling a serious need of many of our patients. In my opinion, this may very well turn out to be the greatest invention since sliced bread.

In February, I asked for support for the children of Cabo, and I want to thank all of you who have sent in hearing aids. There's still time to contribute before our trip next month, so if you would like to help with the mission, please send devices to my address listed at the end of the column.

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The American Academy of Audiology Foundation (AAAF) will auction a one-of-a-kind collection of signed guitars and other music memorabilia to benefit music and hearing research in its annual online Auction 4 Audiology.

The auction items will be on display during the AudiologyNOW! convention in Chicago, and online bidding is open until April 9 at

Auction 4 Audiology 2011 will offer a variety of one-of-a-kind collectibles, including Fender electric guitars signed by Jewel, Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, O.A.R., REO Speedwagon, Styx, and Steve Winwood.

Highlights of the collection include three particularly rare pieces: a framed Coldplay gold record, signed by the band; a Zildjian cymbal signed by the Dave Matthews Band and a one-of-a-kind Martin acoustic guitar with hand-drawn original artwork by Dave Matthews.

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