by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.

If you have trouble hearing on the phone, there are two basic technologies that can help you. One is to amplify speech so it is loud enough for you to hear it. The other is to convert the speech to text so you can read it. And if you want the best of both worlds, you’d want a phone that could both amplify speech and caption it at the same time.

The good news is that there are such phones. I have two of them on my desk as I write this.

The first company to provide amplified, captioned phones was CapTel. I have had a CapTel phone since they began their first trials a few years ago. Today, CapTel’s state of the art phone is the CapTel 840i, which uses a regular phone line to transmit speech and a high-speed Internet connection to send the captions to the phone’s screen.

My other phone is Sorenson’s CaptionCall phone. Although both of these phones work about the same, the sleek CaptionCall phone impressed me at first sight.

Yes, there are things that could be improved, but overall this is a really nice amplified, captioned phone for hard of hearing people.

The competition between these two companies is a good thing for us as hard of hearing users as each company tries to outdo each other in innovation, features, quality and price.

Requirements for Getting a CaptionCall Phone

It order to qualify for a CaptionCall phone, you need to meet the following:

  1. You must be hard of hearing yourself, or someone in your household must have a hearing loss. There is no set decibel level of hearing loss required to get a captioned phone—just that you have difficulty hearing/understanding on the phone because of your hearing loss.
  2. You must have a signed form from a qualified health care professional certifying that you need a captioned phone because of your hearing loss.
  3. You must live in the United States.
  4. As with any other home phone, you need a landline phone connection.
  5. You need a power plug near the phone. (Most amplified and captioned phones are powered by house current.)
  6. Unlike other phones, this phone needs a high-speed Internet connection. The connection can be a DSL line, it can be a high-speed cable connection as long as you have a standard Ethernet connection into which you can plug this phone, or it can use a WiFi connection if you have a wireless router.

How to Get the CaptionCall Phone

Now here’s some wonderful news! You can currently get this phone for free, rather than the minimum $75.00 fee the FCC wants you to pay.

Here’s how to get your free phone. Go to the CaptionCall website at  http://www.CaptionCall.com. Near the top right corner of your screen, you’ll see three green boxes. Click on the middle one labeled “REQUEST INFO”. Fill in the form. In the “Promo Code” box at the end of this form put in the code “HS-1283″. When you are finished filling in the form, click “Submit”.

Next, click here to download the form you need to have signed by a health care professional. Print out this form and take it to one of the following qualified health care professionals. Note: qualified health care professionals permitted to sign this form include audiologists, hearing instrument specialists (hearing aid dispensers), ENT doctors (otolaryngologists), family physicians, GPs (general practitioners, specialists in gerontology, pediatrics and internal medicine, physician’s assistants (PA) and nurse practitioners (NP). Once you have the form filled out, FAX it to CaptionCall at 1-888-778-5838. (Note: if you do not submit this properly-signed form, you can still get a CaptionCall phone. It’s just that you will have to pay $75.00 for it.)

If you would rather phone in your order, simply call the toll–free CaptionCall customer support number at 877–557–2227.

Once CaptionCall receives both your “Request Into” and your “Professional Certification Form”, then you will be approved for a CaptionCall phone. In due time (and this may be a few days or longer depending on where you live and how busy the installers are in your area) a CaptionCall installer will contact you to arrange to come out and install your phone for you. This will not cost you a penny. The CaptionCall installer will show you how to use your phone and explain its many features.

If you want/need a second captioned phone, you can get a second CaptionCall phone, but you’ll have to pay $199.00 for it.

Who Pays for the Captioned Calls?

You’ve heard the expression, “There is no such thing as a free lunch” so you may be wondering how companies such as Sorenson and CapTel can offer free captioning services. The reason captioning is free to hard of hearing (and deaf) people is because it is funded by a monthly charge on everyone’s existing landline phone bill and mandated by the Federal Government. You can see it itemized on your landline phone bill as “Telecommunications Relay Service”. According to the government website, “This charge helps to pay for the relay center which transmits and translates calls for hearing-impaired and speech-impaired people.” (So everyone with a landline phone has been funding this service all along, whether they realized it or not.) Therefore, if it will help you, go ahead and use it. That’s what it is there for.

Features and Cautions

A cool thing about the CaptionCall phone is that it is the first phone of which I am aware that actually has Wi-Fi built in. (Since I originally wrote this, the new CapTel 840i also has Wi-Fi built in.) Thus, if you have a wireless router, the CaptionCall (and CapTel) phones can connect wirelessly to your router. That way you can use it anywhere in your home without having to have a nearby Ethernet connection.

Note: the CaptionCall phone’s built in wireless antenna does not have the extended range that many routers and laptop computers have. This means that if you locate the CaptionCall phone at some distance from your router (perhaps your router is in the basement) you may have problems getting a good connection. In such cases you will need to use a direct-wired Ethernet connection. However, as long as you are reasonably close to your wireless router, (CaptionCall suggests within 30 feet as a rule of thumb) this phone works wonderfully well in wireless mode. You can tell how strong the wireless signal is by the number of bars shown on the upper right corner of the screen. Four bars indicates you have a strong signal.

When you answer the CaptionCall phone, the captioning is off, but you can press the captions “On” button and within a few seconds, the captions will appear. They will stay on until you either press the captions “Off” button or hang up.

If you have the captioning on and realize that you can hear the person fine, press the captions “Off” button to turn off the captions (and save the fund some money since all captioned calls are billed to the fund at the rate of $1.76 per minute). By the same token, if you have the captions turned off and begin to have trouble understanding the person again, just press the captions “On” button and in about 5 to 10 seconds, your call will begin to be captioned again. In other words, you can turn captioning on or off on the fly. You do not have to wait until the call is completed to change captioning modes.

The CaptionCall phone is easy to use and works just like a regular phone. There are no special numbers to dial or special numbers those calling you need to dial. You just pick up the receiver, dial the number like you normally would, and within a few seconds anything the other person says will appear on the screen of your CaptionCall phone.

The CaptionCall phone has a 7 inch screen. It comes with three text sizes and three contrast settings. Combined with its exceptionally smooth-scrolling text that makes text ever so easy to read. Furthermore, the wonderful screen resolution—800 x 480 pixels—gives beautiful, clear captions. You do not need to strain to read the captions, nor do they look pixilated.

Note: the accuracy of the captions ranges from near perfect to almost useless. If the person to whom you are talking speaks reasonably slowly and clearly, the resulting captions are wonderful. However, if the person speaks fast, doesn’t pause, doesn’t articulate his words clearly or has a strong accent, the captions may be pretty much useless. If this happens, you need to ask the person to repeat what they said slowly and clearly. The quality of the captions should improve.

Another cool feature that CaptionCall built into this phone is how you can customize the phones frequency response to your specific hearing loss. To set it for your kind of loss, just press the “Settings” button, then choose “Amplification”. Now you have 5 choices for your kind of loss. Choose “None” if you have a “flat” curve as shown on your audiogram. If you have the rare reverse slope hearing loss, choose “Boost low frequencies”. If you have a “cookie-bit loss” choose “Boost mid frequencies”. If you have the very common “ski slope loss” then choose “Boost high frequencies”.

Now here’s a really cool feature—if you want to set the phone to exactly match your audiogram, you can choose “Custom”, then you move the green dots on the phone’s audiogram up or down by frequency to match the degree of hearing loss shown on your audiogram. (You just “push” them with your finger on the touch-sensitive screen.)

Another thing that impressed me about the CaptionCall phone is its clarity of sound. At high volumes, other phones I have used process speech so much that the speech sounds clipped and unnatural. Not so with the CaptionCall phone. Furthermore, there is no feedback like can happen with some high-powered phones.

The CaptionCall phone provides 40 dB of gain. This is plenty of volume if your hearing loss ranges down to moderately-severe or so. However, if you have a severe or profound loss and you choose not to use hearing aids when using the phone (which is what I do), you may find this gain is not enough for you. What I do is add an external amplifier between the phone base and handset for an additional 45 dB of gain. My favorite amplifier for this application is Serene Innovations UA-50. (I use it with a binaural Plantronics headset with boom microphone for handsfree operation.)

The CaptionCall phone has an 1/8 inch audio jack on the left side. Normally, an 1/8” (3.5 mm) jack would indicate you could plug in a neck loop or headphones or earbuds. However, CaptionCall goofed and wired this jack, not to fit the above, but to fit loopsets (neckloop and microphone combinations) and headsets (earphone and microphone combinations). Since these devices typically use a 3/32” (2.5 mm) plug, they don’t work either.

However, all is not lost. CaptionCall will furnish an adapter at no charge, or you can get one at Radio Shack, (# 274-0397). Then you will be able to use a loopset such as the Clear Sounds CLA7v2, but not a regular passive neckloop.

All in all, I am very pleased with the new CaptionCall phone. It is now my favorite phone. Try it. Maybe it will become your favorite phone too.

(Last Updated March 25, 2014)