By: Robert Eugene Richardson
On November 11, we as a nation will celebrate Veterans Day. As we honor those who have served our country this year, let us also recognize that this year marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), landmark legislation that bans discrimination based on disability in all aspects of community life. Signed into law in 1990, the ADA helped transform our understanding of disability as not a health issue, but rather one of equality and civil rights. The two events connect, because the ADA benefits many disabled veterans—myself included.
For two years, I proudly served my country as a member of the United States Army in Vietnam, where I was frequently exposed to both the sounds of heavy-duty weaponry and high explosives. This experience served to exacerbate and accelerate hearing loss I had since childhood.
Later, upon return to civilian life, I became a lawyer and specialized in family law. At the peak of my career, when I was doing impactful work on behalf of children and families in distress, a judge at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia pulled me aside and told me I should stop litigating because of my hearing problem; he noticed I was repeating things people had already said. This was incredibly difficult for me, and remains painful to recount today. While I went on to work in a different capacity, I regret not having the supports I need to continue my chosen career path.
That was right around the time the ADA was signed, and since then, thanks to multiple benefits as a result of my military service and the protections afforded by the law, I have been able to access resources and services that allow me to live a life of independence, without fear of feeling disconnected due to my hearing loss. Among these resources is Internet Protocol Captioned Telephone Service (IP CTS), also known as captioned telephone service.
Access to captioned telephone service is a right guaranteed under the ADA to qualifying individuals with hearing loss. It allows a person to use the telephone with the aid of captions, and it can be used for any type of phone call, whether with friends, family or emergency personnel. In a similar manner to captioned television, IP CTS uses a mix of technology and skilled interpreters to provide accurate written captions of what callers say on a screen affixed to a special phone or via an app.
This service is incredibly important to veterans, because when it comes to former members of our military experiencing hearing loss, I am not alone. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, veterans are 30 percent more likely than the general population to have a severe hearing loss, and those who served after September 2001 are four times more likely.
Hearing loss is far more than a simple inconvenience. Without access to technology that facilitates communication, people with hearing loss are can experience social isolation and loneliness, which in turn is associated with insomnia, depression, drug abuse, and other physical and mental health conditions. Research shows that loneliness can shorten an individual’s life by as much as 15 years.
Clearly, for many veterans, like myself, and other Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing, quality and clarity of IP CTS is critical. But sadly, officials at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the chief agency that administers the service’s funding, have conditionally approved multiple providers of captioned telephone service who use only automatic speech recognition (ASR) technology. The FCC believes these providers will reduce costs to the Telecommunications Relay Fund, which pays for the service.
If you’ve ever used Siri or Alexa, then you know that ASR technology has limitations, especially when it comes to processing accents or voices that are higher or lower pitched. I personally have a Kansas City accent from being born and raised in the area and believe that without a human call assistant to help ASR provide captions, my phone calls to other captioned telephone users could become muddled.
Prioritizing cost-management over the needs of our veterans and others with hearing loss is wrong and would be a tremendous mistake. For me and so many others, there is simply no substitute for captioned telephone service.
As a veteran and an American with a disability, I cannot express enough how grateful I am for the passage of the ADA—and the services it assures me. For that reason, I urge the FCC to preserve the quality of captioned telephone service by doing more research on ASR and establishing quality metrics based on this research.