Joe Duarte, Co-CEO of InnoCaption, provides a brief history on the evolution of accessibility solutions for the deaf & hard of hearing community and shares his personal journey and vision for the future. 

Utopia is the ability to understand the news on TV like a hearing person without any delays, never missing a word in a phone call, being able to participate in an active discussion with hearing people without being left out, and traveling without fear of missing announcements, like in an airport. Ultimately, utopia is to feel safe in any environment with a hearing loss or as a deaf individual.

Growing up, I didn’t have much access when it came to telecommunications. The phone was always a challenge with my limited hearing even with hearing aids. I had to rely on family members and friends to make phone calls for me and to be my intermediaries. The only access I had, which was quite a blessing for me, was the fact that I was growing up in Portugal and all the foreign movies were captioned in Portuguese. The problem was that I lost this accessibility when I moved to the United States and could no longer enjoy TV or movies due to lack of captioning. 

Fortunately, a hard of hearing child today has access to captions on most of the movies and media on the TV, and streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc. They are also able to make their own phone calls without having to rely on others. The ability to grow up with this level of independence and self-sufficiency is empowering and helps children get to adulthood with confidence and a sense of control of their own lives.

Let me backup and tell you the evolution of accessibility for the deaf and hard of hearing so you can appreciate how far this industry has come! 

The evolution of telecommunications accessibility began when the Text Telephone (TTY) was invented in 1964 by two deaf individuals when they converted an old Teletype machine to enable it to be used over the telephone lines. This became the main form of communication for most of the deaf and hard of hearing users for many years. When the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) came to fruition in 1990, telecommunications relay services became prevalent, different modalities like voice-carry-over and two line voice-carry-over also became popular with deaf and hard of hearing individuals who preferred to speak for themselves. 

With personal computers becoming more accessible post-ADA, TTY software was the next technological development resulting in new accessibility solutions. In 2003, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved captioned phones after the successful development and demonstration of CapTel. While accessibility for the hard of hearing community was improving, tremendous progress was also being made in the Video Relay Service (VRS) scene for individuals whose primary language and mode of communication was sign language. In 2002, the FCC started reimbursing VRS, which expanded quickly as the internet became faster and more accessible to the deaf community. 

Over the last 5 years, we’ve seen major technological breakthroughs with telephone captioning apps like InnoCaption as smartphones have become mainstream and more people migrated to them from landline phones. More recently, we have seen an increase in the use of Automated Speech Recognition (ASR) technologies which are now being used widely for automated captioning and are also now being included in apps to support phone calls.

The hard of hearing community has so many technologies to rely on today – from hearing aids, cochlear implants, to visual alerting services, telecommunications devices, and PC-based tools for video conferences and other media. While there is still a lot of work to do to offer the community a seamless experience in their day-to-day lives, the future is quite promising for accessibility for all due to the rapid technological developments and breakthroughs. 

While I appreciate the progress made so far, I know that the utopia I painted above is still a ways off. 

The challenge I face at InnoCaption is to find ways to ensure that these technologies are available and accessible to everyone that needs them. I see a need for professionals to become more educated about the availability of such accessibility tools for many people that could benefit from them. I also think a lot about our aging population, and how often they don’t have the opportunity or the support to discover that there are many tools that could help them have more accessible and fulfilling lives. Ultimately, technology will lead the way and in due time we will be experiencing new levels of accessibility that today are still a dream.