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Cell Phones, TTYS, and Hearing Aids: Consumer FAQ 2002

This article first appeared in the 2002 TDI National Directory & Resource Guide

Cell Phones, TTYs, and Hearing Aids:
Consumer FAQ [1]

Judith E. Harkins, Ph.D.
RERC on Telecommunications Access, Gallaudet University

Cellular phones keep a hundred million Americans in touch with family, friends, and business associates. They have also proven their value as safety devices during times of emergency.

Nearly all cell phones sold today are digital, and digital cell phones are currently less accessible than analog phones to people who use TTY and/or hearing aids. You can still buy analog service in most cities, but you may find that service providers will discourage you from doing so. The FCC is considering allowing carriers to stop offering analog service soon. Therefore, this article focuses on digital wireless telephones and, unlike past years, no longer advises users to purchase analog service.

As Blue Book readers know, there are many alternatives to cell phones for people who use text messaging and who do not need the voice component. Pagers, personal digital assistants with wireless modems, phones that do text messaging and web browsing are all worth looking into and evaluating against your own needs for mobile communications. Not all of these products are equally accessible; for example few if any PDAs can vibrate when there is an incoming message. Some paging services, such as Wyndtell and ReachNet, allow you to make TTY calls from the pager, while other services do not.

What advantages do cell phones have? Cell phones can call 9-1-1. Some cell phone providers are able to offer better coverage than data-only networks provide. For people who want to use voice, such as those who use TTY and Voice Carry Over (VCO) and those who can converse on the phone while using a hearing aid, a cell phone may be more useful than a text-only device. (But see below for more information on VCO.)

Can I use a TTY with a digital cellular phone?

The FCC has ordered the wireless industry to make their digital systems compatible with TTYs by June 30, 2002. On that date, TTY users should be able to choose any wireless service provider. They will need to buy a handset that is equipped to handle TTY. As of the deadline, not all handsets will work with TTYs. It is not yet known how the industry will communicate with TTY users about the accessibility of the handsets and the cables that will be needed. Advocates are stressing that the packaging needs to be clearly labeled.

The services will not support TurboCode or other enhanced protocols. The enhanced protocols will need to be turned off for wireless calls. (TTY manufacturers will probably change the default to “off” for their mobile models.)

VCO access may not be available by the June 30, 2002 deadline. When you plug a cable into the audio jack of a cell phone, the phone’s microphone will shut off automatically. This means your voice will not be heard if you speak into the handset. It also appears, based on early testing of new handsets, that TTY sounds that would normally come through the earpiece’s speaker will also be shut off in at least some systems. This will make Krown’s “Pocket VCO” device unusable with these phones.

Industry is aware that VCO support is lagging, but they are focusing now on getting accurate TTY signals through their networks, and then will turn to VCO issues.

What kind of TTY should I use?

A small TTY is of course most convenient. Ultratec’s Compact TTY and EZ Com and Ameriphone’s Q90 are small and now have audio jacks for connecting directly to the wireless phone. Older models of Compact or EZ Com do not have the audio jack. Some TTY models are being modified slightly to match better with the wireless products, so be sure to tell the manufacturer or distributor that the TTY will be used with a digital cell phone.

Can I use my hearing aid with a digital cell phone?

It is not possible to give a straight answer to this question. Some hearing aid wearers will be able to find cell phones and service providers that work well for them. Others will hear a buzz when trying out their hearing aid with any digital wireless phone, but may benefit from accessories that help distance the phone from the hearing aid. And some people will be frustrated by not being able to find a satisfactory phone. In general, older, larger hearing aids are more susceptible than newer aids. When purchasing a new hearing aid, it is wise to ask about immunity to interference.

Where should I start to look for wireless service that will work with my hearing aid?

Many people think that the phone is the most important issue, but for hearing aid wearers, the service provider is the first thing to consider. Each service provider uses different transmission technology and they have different effects on hearing aids. A good place to start is with Verizon Wireless, Sprint PCS (both of which use CDMA technology), or NexTel (which uses iDEN technology). We have anecdotal reports, as well as some research evidence, that the technologies used by these carriers produce less-audible interference than some others. (However, every situation is different, and you may find that you have success with other carriers as well. This advice is to give you a starting point.)

What should I look for in a phone to go with my hearing aid?

First, keep in mind that the phone and service are linked. Each service provider decides which wireless handsets can be used on its network. If you get some word-of-mouth advice about a handset working well with someone else’s hearing aids, be sure to ask which service provider the person has. The name of the phone manufacturer alone is not enough information to be sure you are getting a usable model.

We are getting positive reports from some hearing aid wearers with t-coils, who have certain Samsung models on CDMA systems such as Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless.

The phone’s antenna is the source of much of the interference. Some people report that they like “flip” phones because they believe that flipping the cover shields the hearing aid from some of the antenna’s interference. But the antenna is not the only source of interference. Internal electronics also contribute to interference when the hearing aid is in T-switch mode. For example, back-lit screens on the phones can cause a buzz. If possible, turn off the back-lighting to see if the phone’s performance improves.

Besides the usual considerations of cost, size, battery life, etc. you need to think about ring signals. A phone that either vibrates or can be used with a vibrating accessory (a pen-like device carried in a pocket, for example) will be more effective than a phone that does not have this feature. A traditional ring-flasher will not work. For hard of hearing people, the ability to control the volume and tone of the ring may be helpful.

Some phones can also be used as text messaging devices. This varies by service provider. Usually text messaging is charged in addition to the voice services. Some service providers may begin to offer text-only services in the near future.

What if I hear too much buzz or don’t understand the speech on any of the phones that I try?

If you have a telecoil in your hearing aid, you may want to consider using an accessory. Nokia and Motorola sell neckloop accessories with built-in microphones. The neckloop plugs into the handset, which can be carried in a pocket or clipped to a waistband. Some people use the neckloop as back-up in case they get into a noisy environment or just cannot understand a particular person on the phone. For some people, neckloops provide better listening conditions than regular wireline phones! These accessories require batteries, so you will be responsible for the care and feeding of three sets of batteries: the phone’s, the hearing aid’s, and the neckloop’s.

Another problem: Few showrooms have neckloops on hand for customers to try out.

Where can I seek advice as I shop?

If you are a hearing aid or TTY user, it is not a good idea to take a chance and buy just any phone from an electronics store or website. Do as much background research as you can on the web, then go to a store (preferably the service provider’s store) and ask to try out the phones before purchasing.

You can also ask your TTY manufacturer or hearing aid manufacturer which phones they believe work best with their devices. They may be able to help, but it is unlikely they will be able to keep an updated list of all phones. It is nearly impossible to keep up with the fast-changing handsets on the market, and there are four digital wireless transmission technologies to consider.

What should I do if I can’t find an accessible phone?

When you start to look for an accessible wireless phone, write down your experiences as you go along. Then, if you have an experience that is bad enough to merit a written complaint, you will be able to write an effective one. Send a letter or e-mail to the FCC detailing your experiences. If you wish your comments to be considered as a complaint, you need to explicitly say this in your letter or email. (Another article in this resource guide will give more information on how to do this.)

There are several laws and rules governing this issue. The Hearing Aid Compatibility Act, passed in 1988, exempted cell phones but required the FCC to review the exemption periodically. In 2001, the wireless industry claims over 100 million American subscribers: This is no longer a fledgling industry, and these problems have been known for at least six years. It is time for the FCC to reconsider the exemption.

The rule on wireless TTY access to 9-1-1 service is an absolute rule, and industry has been granted numerous extensions to reach the goal. If you cannot use a TTY with wireless services after the June 30, 2002 deadline, let the FCC know.

Section 255 requires that wireless phones (and other telecommunications equipment) be accessible and usable, if it is readily achievable to do so. Section 255 is complaint-driven. This means that, if companies are unresponsive to access problems but no one complains to the FCC, problems will persist.

The engineers in industry who are working on these problems are dedicated and want to do the best job possible. But they do not control the whole picture – the training of sales people, the resources allocated for testing, the upgrading process. As always, the people who will best judge the end results are consumers.

[1] Mention of products in this article does not imply endorsement by TDI or Gallaudet University.

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