Mobile Devices for Individuals Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

by Jonathan O’Dell, Assistive Technology Manager and Training Specialist at the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Before mobile devices and associated mobile information streams came along, there was the telephone. And while the telephone, especially the cellular telephone, certainly proved to be a boon to hearing people, it presented deaf people with insurmountable barriers. Even people who are severely deaf can usually lipread some of what another person is saying; with the telephone, lipreading becomes impossible. While technology was developed that allowed deaf people to type text at first over land line telephones and then cellular phones, they were either bulky, expensive or unreliable.

Mobile devices, as we know them today, however, have proven to be as much a boon for people who are deaf or hard of hearing as they are for anyone else. Through them we receive messages, texts, emails, Tweets, and Facebook status updates like any hearing individual; the barrier that used to exist in terms of access to what we call “incidental information” (information that may be overheard and of interest, but not specifically directed to someone) is starting to fall away simply due to the sheer ubiquity of mobile computing and communicating devices, and the flood of information that is received on them.

Generally speaking, “mobile devices,” here, references smart phones and tablets. These come in a bewildering array of sizes, features, capabilities and operating systems (OS). The operating systems with the most features available today are iOS (Apple) and Android (Google). Windows Mobile and BlackBerry are also on the market, but as yet they do not provide access to Video Relay Service applications (VRS) which allow deaf mobile device users to call hearing users–an essential service.

Video Relay and Point-to-Point Video Calling

Through VRS mobile applications, deaf persons may sign a conversation to an operator (also known as a “communication assistant”) using the device’s camera. The operator then voices it for the hearing caller and signs back the voiced response. In addition to Video Relay Service apps, are Video Phone apps (and apps that provide access to both). Video Phone apps allow deaf persons to communicate directly in sign language without an intervening operator.

Direct, point-to-point video communications are also accessible through Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) video providers like Skype and Oovoo and through apps like Facetime (native to iOS) and Google Talk (Android). Such point-to-point video services can also boost speech comprehension for some hard-of-hearing individuals due to the added assistance of the visual component. Both VRS and point-to-point video calls are possible with iOS and Android–on tablets as well as smart phones–so long as the mobile device has a front-facing camera, and a fast enough Internet connection (inadequate bandwidth will render video choppy, pixilated, and essentially useless). Users may also need a specific version of their device’s operating system since manufacturers continually update their OS, and an OS that is generations behind will usually not be compatible with the newest versions of any Video Phone or VRS software.

Apps for Text, Captioning, and More…

Text and email applications are invaluable for many people who cannot hear or speak; while those who can speak but not hear often use captioned telephone applications. Captioning services, such as Hamilton Captel, allow a caller to use speech and then read the text of the other person’s spoken reply as relayed through an operator. Operators hear the other person’s voice and repeat their words into speech recognition software. The software sends the text to the deaf or hard-of-hearing caller’s phone.

Also useful for some individuals who are hard of hearing are sound amplifier apps. Apps like SoundAMP boost sound for greater clarity. For individuals who are completely deaf, decibel measuring apps can alert them to the presence of loud sounds in their environment. These display when the decibel level of background noise has suddenly peaked against the previous “baseline normal” sound level.

Other applications, such as GPS, while not specifically designed for deaf or hard of hearing people, can free a person from having to ask for directions from someone who may not understand them or whom they may not understand. Also useful are applications for travel, online ordering, and the like which make it possible to conduct business without having to talk to someone else–a boon for people who don’t find that easy to do.

In summary, mobile devices and applications are powerful tools for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, individuals who will usually choose devices and services based on accessibility features. Such considerations include the availability of closed captions and subtitles (such as provided by Netflix), the adequacy of volume controls, accessory headphone jacks, and more. However, also important are battery life, screen size, weight, portability, the network coverage, and service plan. For example it’s important to know who may offer a discounted rate for deaf users who will not use voice plans and instead opt for unlimited text and larger data buckets as part of a text access plan.

Indeed, devices, apps, operating systems, and service plans change and/or multiply constantly. The single best tool to make your experience successful is knowledge, and there is much information online about mobile devices, apps, and plans. As the expression goes, the best consumer is an educated consumer; and it cannot be forgotten that each and every one of us has certain communication preferences and auditory differences that make the search for the “single best device/software/application” as elusive as the hunt for the fabled unicorn.

Compare mobile devices for features of interest to deaf/hh users at this FCC Accessibility Clearing House Web page.

Learn more about specific apps of interest to deaf/hh mobile tech users from this annotated list of Android and iOS apps compiled by the Minnesota Dept. of Health.

Clickable Web links1.…



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