We’d like to take time this Veterans Day to honor the service to the individuals and family members associated with the armed forces. In particular, we’re honoring Air Force Veteran, InnoCaption user, and friend, Fred Williams.
We recently connected with Fred about his journey with hearing loss and InnoCaption. Fred has been a user since InnoCaption’s official launch in 2014 and is an integral part of the deaf and hard of hearing advocacy community. We can all learn from Fred’s continued efforts to increase accessibility for this community and our veterans.
Q. Could you share a bit about your journey with hearing loss?
A. I first noticed a hearing loss in 1983 during my Air Force tour in Ramstein Air Base in Germany. I retired from the Air Force in 1988 and moved to Virginia where the Washington, DC Veterans Administration audiology clinic provided hearing aid updates. As my hearing further declined, I joined the Northern Virginia Resource Center (NVRC), a non-profit dedicated to helping people with hearing loss. When I eventually joined the board of NVRC, I met Meg Duarte and her husband Joe (who may sound familiar as the Co-CEO at InnoCaption!). At the time, Joe was the owner of Duartek, a hearing technology firm.
As a result of my hearing loss I was missing a lot of speech and becoming socially isolated, totally upending my work and my personal life. After being influenced by my wife Pat, Joe, and Meg Duarte, I decided to get cochlear implants. I received my first implant at the University of North Carolina Medical Center in 2011. I went to UNC because they offered a pioneering hybrid program with MedEl, using hearing aids to supplement implants, in order to preserve remaining low frequency hearing. In 2014, I received a second implant and was grateful for the improved speech understanding.
Since the second implant, I have continued looking for any assistive listening technology such as InnoCaption, hearing loop locations, and transcribing services. My hearing continues to slowly decline, but my experience with NVRC, the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) has helped me cope (“you are not alone”) and find hearing strategies and assistive technology.
Q. When did you first hear about InnoCaption?
A. Years ago, Joe Duarte told me he was on a team trying to start a new cell phone caption service. He asked me to join the team as a hard-of-hearing person to help persuade the FCC to approve a new cell phone service to operate in order to receive official funding and support.
Q. How long have you been using InnoCaption?
A. Since it was approved for operation by the FCC in 2014.
Q. What made you choose InnoCaption?
A. I liked the process InnoCaption would be using to transcribe speech in order to operate and maintain the caption phone system. I needed to stay connected to people while being mobile. I also had complete faith in the InnoCaption team due to my own experiences with Joe Duarte.
Q. What need does InnoCaption address for you?
A. InnoCaption provides responsive and accurate captions, a means to save and transmit captioned conversations, helpful and timely technical support, continuous improvement of the caption displays and technical support, the human voice of the distant speaker, and a community created by the InnoCaption team. It’s available anytime, anywhere.
Q. Can you talk about a time when InnoCaption helped you where you may otherwise have had difficulties communicating?
A. Many times, contacting offices or organizations leads you to long automated instructions and handoffs and humans who eventually answer and have various accents. InnoCaption enables me to get to a resolution more quickly, enabling me to navigate through those automations.
I have had many experiences where an individual on the other end of the line speaks rapidly or without crisp audio. InnoCaption is able to convert this speech into accurate captions in order for me to receive the information I need to take care of everyday tasks.
Q. Can you share a bit about your experience with the Hard of Hearing Task Force at the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing?
A. The Hard of Hearing Task Force is sponsored by the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. The Commission, under the innovative and nationally recognized leadership of Sherri Collins, is the state office that helps people with hearing loss. In line with the Commission mandates, the Task Force vision is “…that all hard of hearing Arizonans are educated, empowered advocates.” The Task Force is chaired by Christy Abrams and mentored by Michele Michaels, the Hard of Hearing Program Manager. These ladies are a blessing for our community. They seem to know so much about hearing loss (Michele is very experienced and relentlessly researches) and they work hard to keep us informed.
Task Force members also include Liz Booth, Ron Tallman, Barry Forst and Roz Seibold, all of HLAA Sun Lakes, Melanie O’Rourke of HLAA West Valley, Cynthia Amerman, of the Tucson ALOHA hearing loss group, and Harvey Smith, who helps hard of hearing people find jobs. I mention these Task Force members to illustrate the broad experience and the energy available to the Task Force as we try to encourage advocacy and make information and services more available to educate and empower all hard of hearing Arizonans. I am honored to work with these good people, all leaders in the Arizona hearing loss community, and others around the state. We need even more of you to help advocate for accessibility for all of us.
Q. What motivates you to be such a strong advocate for the deaf and hard of hearing community?
A. A driving force for my advocacy is my own persistent need for accessibility solutions in order to conduct personal business and socialize with other people, but I’m also motivated by the increasing awareness that there are many people like me who have no advocates. There are not enough advocates so it’s crucial to focus on education and empowerment. My experiences show that change can be made if you use constructive approaches and I’m consistently inspired by the many others who have done the same.
The appreciation my wife, Pat and I have received for helping improve accessibility is incredibly motivating. I should also mention that Pat is a hearing person who has helped me navigate all the steps of losing my hearing and finding remedies. She has become well-versed in hearing loss and is on our HLAA West Valley board. Even with InnoCaption and cochlear implants, I’d really struggle without Pat. It’s a hearing loss community mantra that you need to tell people what you need. You might be surprised how helpful people can be once they know what you need.
But overall, it’s the right thing to do. There are 48 million Americans with some degree of hearing loss. If we all help, even just a bit, we can improve many lives.