As ADA anniversary nears, lawmakers express concern about changes to captioned telephone service
© Greg Nash

Recently, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) conditionally approved providers of Internet Protocol Captioned Telephone Service (IP CTS) that use only automatic speech recognition (ASR) technology. This approval could put veterans, older adults, and other people with hearing loss who use this service to communicate at risk due to the potential for significant captioning errors. In response to these approvals, two bipartisan letters were submitted to the FCC: one from Reps. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) and Don Young (R-Alaska), co-chairs of the Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus, and one from Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) asking the FCC to establish service quality standards that address the unique aspects of ASR-only services.

On behalf of the World Institute on Disability and the Clear2Connect Coalition, a group dedicated to preserving the right for Americans with hearing loss to access the technology they need to communicate using a phone, I want to express appreciation to Langevin, Young, Tester and Moran for taking action to protect the rights of Americans with disabilities under the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law 30 years ago this month.

Approximately 15 percent of American adults, or 37.5 million people, experience hearing loss, and this number will grow significantly as the estimated 72 million Baby Boomers age. When the ADA was passed, it mandated that people who are deaf or have hearing loss have access to captioned telephone service, and that their experience using the service be “functionally equivalent” to that of people without hearing loss using the telephone.

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Even as some states are beginning to reopen in the wake of COVID-19, many of the most disproportionately impacted people, including older adults and people with disabilities, must continue to follow safety and health guidelines by physically distancing and staying home. As urged by the co-chairs of the Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus, it remains vital that communication access “is not diminished during this time of unprecedented remote communication.” People who are deaf or have hearing loss must be able to communicate effectively using the telephone.

That’s where captioned telephone service comes in. It allows people who have hearing loss to speak during a phone call, and then read captions on a specialized telephone or app when the other person responds. Current providers of captioned telephone service use cutting-edge speech recognition technology, along with skilled transcribers, to provide users real-time, accurate transcriptions of conversations, which is especially crucial when users are speaking with health care providers or emergency responders.

In June 2018, the FCC determined that ASR is permissible to deliver captioned telephone service based on a study conducted by the MITRE Corporation. Many organizations, including the Clear2Connect Coalition, have questioned the validity of this study because it was conducted in optimal lab conditions not representative of real-life telephonic communication, was not peer reviewed, had a small sample size, and used varied testing methods for different technologies, rendering comparisons invalid. As Moran and Tester stated in their letter, “Without such standards and thorough peer-reviewed testing, neither the FCC nor consumers will be able to assess effectively whether ASR-only services will be suitable for providing these necessary services to those who need it most. Americans with hearing disabilities, especially veterans and seniors must not be disadvantaged as the FCC experiments with new technology in this critical service area.”

Put simply, not enough data exists on ASR technology to properly represent the disability community. In fact, people with disabilities are often marked as “outliers” in training data for such artificial intelligence systems, which can lead to biased data, in turn perpetuating historical biases that exclude people with many types of disabilities—not just hearing loss—who may use captioned telephone service.

“In the absence of additional research,” Langevin and Young wrote in their letter, “we are unconvinced that ASR-only services meet the functional equivalence standard required by the ADA.” As such, until and unless advancements in the quality and accuracy of ASR technology are made, and measures are put in place to ensure a set standard of accessibility that meets ADA requirements, the FCC must not limit the use or lower the effectiveness of captioned telephone service.

Veterans and older adults are disproportionally affected by hearing loss, making captioned telephone service critical to their ability to keep in contact with family, friends, employers and health care professionals, among others. I urge those reading to contact their representatives in Congress and/or the FCC to express that approving ASR-only captioned telephone service without quality standards in place significantly impedes upon the independence of people with hearing loss, and thus runs counter to the intent and requirements of the ADA.

Loretta Herrington is the Managing Director of External Affairs & International Development for the World Institute on Disability (WID). WID is a member of the Clear2Connect Coalition.