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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 October 2006, 06:37 GMT 07:37 UK
Telecoms open up for deaf people
By Geoff Adams-Spink
Age & disability correspondent, BBC News website

Photo of a woman using ScreenPhone
ScreenPhone allows the caller to speak and read the reply
Services developed by UK organisations will help some hearing-impaired people to participate more fully in phone calls and meetings.

A Bedfordshire company will soon start two new services using internet devices and voice recognition technology.

And the Royal National Institute for Deaf people (RNID) is launching the ScreenPhone.

Both products turn voice calls or meetings into text and are aimed at deaf people who prefer to speak.

The ScreenPhone costs just over 200 and uses the RNID's Typetalk service.

The organisation estimates that it could be of benefit to almost half a million people.

The call is connected by a Typetalk operator so that the hard of hearing person is able to use their own voice but the other person's responses are typed and presented as text on the ScreenPhone's display.

The RNID says that people who lose their hearing during adulthood often prefer to use their own voice for making phone calls.

Until now, text phones have required the user to type what they want to say - something which some older people have found difficult.

The ScreenPhone is made by Geemarc and has a large screen with adjustable font sizes.

"This is a very exciting breakthrough for people who are losing their hearing and can no longer use the telephone," said Mark Downs, RNID's executive director of technology and enterprise.

The RNID says that - in people who are losing their hearing - the ear's ability to separate sounds gradually reaches a point at which they can no longer distinguish between different parts of speech.

Simply providing sound amplification does not overcome this problem.

Bedfordshire-based Teletec has announced two services that use an internet device - a computer, PDA or smartphone - as well as a phone connection.

WebCapTel connects two callers via an operator who then repeats the conversation into voice recognition software which then displays the whole thing as text on the deaf person's hardware.

Teletec says that there will be a 3 or 4 second delay between a person speaking and the text appearing.

The company's Personal Communicating service uses the same technology to give a hearing-impaired person access to a face-to-face meeting.

Photo of a man using the WebCapTel service
WebCapTel needs an internet and a phone connection

In this case the Teletec operator - or captioning assistant - listens to the meeting using a conference phone or even a mobile handset.

The captioning assistants have to be specially trained to be able to listen and speak at the same time - a skill similar to that of a simultaneous translator.

"If somebody mumbles or the captioning assistant doesn't quite catch what's being said they press the 'unclear' button," explained David Hart of Teletec.

"This will then give the person reading the text the opportunity to tell the person they're speaking to that they didn't catch what was said so it can be repeated."

Both WebCapTel and Personal Communicating are expected to be launched early next year.

While both the Teletec and the RNID systems do similar things, one of the main differences will be the cost to the end user.

ScreenPhone will cost the same as an ordinary phone call once the handset has been purchased.

WebCapTel and Personal Communicating will cost 1 per minute.

According to David Hart of Teletec, this cost can often be met in a business environment by the government's Access to Work fund.

And he points out that in the case of shorter meetings - for example a 20-minute medical consultation - the cost would be a lot less than using a British Sign Language interpreter.

Telecoms regulator, Ofcom, is being lobbied to create a fund to subsidise the cost of calls to services like WebCapTel.

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