It can get noisy in Beverly Sudler’s home in Union. Not only is there a very vocal Irish Setter loudly appealing for attention, but if anyone calls, telephones — all on high volume — jangle from all sides.
“Is that loud for you?” Sudler asked a visitor, unperturbed by the din but curious about its effect on others. Were it not for her hearing aid in one ear and the cochlear implant in the other, she would hear almost none of the noise. Since 1985, she has become increasingly hearing impaired — one of 750,000 people in New Jersey disabled in that way.
The cochlear implant — the surgically implanted device worn in combination with an external receiver — has made a huge difference, enabling her to hear household sounds and regular conversation. “I can even hear the dog’s nails on the floor,” Sudler said.
But differentiating words on the telephone would still be a problem if it were not for her favorite aid, the CapTel phone, with its captioned screen. She has had other phones designed to assist the hard-of-hearing, but this one, she said, is the best.
When she answers the phone, the caller’s words are augmented by a text transcription just a few moments behind the voice. “Without this, it’s so difficult to use the phone, and without the phone, you’re so cut off,” she said. “In an emergency, that can be really dangerous.”
As a member of the advisory board of New Jersey Relay, a service provided by the NJ Board of Public Utilities, Sudler was instrumental in getting the system introduced.
The service aims to give equal phone access to deaf, hard-of-hearing, deaf-blind, and speech disabled people. The CapTel system was introduced three years ago and is now in use in all but two states across the country.
The system uses voice recognition technology in combination with human transcribers. The caption phones, which can also be used like an ordinary phone, retail for just under $500, but are provided by the NJ Captioned Telephone Service for $99. The captioning service is free. The cost is covered by Telecommunications Relay Service funds, as part of Title IV of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
‘Descent into hell’
Sudler was in her early 50s, a substitute teacher with two grown daughters — one now an endocrinologist, the other a clinical psychologist — when she realized that if she put her watch to one ear, she couldn’t hear it tick. “It became impossible to work with small children,” she recalled. “It was a devastating — a descent into hell. It takes away your life.”
There was no definitive diagnosis of the cause of her nerve deterioration; there often isn’t, she said. And she found very little help from the medical profession. While she is ardent in her praise of Dr. J. Thomas Roland, codirector of the cochlear implant center at New York University Medical Center, and his staff, who handled her implant in February 2008, she is scathing about some of the medical people she has encountered in New Jersey. “Most of them haven’t a clue,” she said.
An inveterate researcher, Sudler has learned all she can about available resources. The 12 telephones about the house are evidence of her efforts. The CapTel system, she said, is the best she has ever come across. She is also an ardent advocate of cochlear implants, for those who can handle the long adjustment process.
It frustrates Sudler that there is so little cohesiveness among the hard-of-hearing, and she is working strenuously to change that. Among the deaf, she said, many of whom rely on sign language, there is a shared culture and a strong sense of community. Not so among those with partial hearing. Part of the problem, she said, is that they are “as varied as fingerprints. Everyone is different.”
She said there are about 30 million people in the United States who are hard-of-hearing, “and only 10,000 belong to the Hearing Loss Association of America,” which she joined 20 years ago. About another 35,000 connect with the association, as donors, or as recipients of its e-mailed news bulletins.
Few lay or professional people even know what support services are available. For example, Sudler said, not many know that some movie theaters offer the free service Rear Window Captioning, through which subtitles are projected in reverse on the rear wall, so they can be seen the right way around on a reflector placed in the cup holder on the seat arm.
The need for services and support for the hard-of-hearing is going to grow, Sudler said, because of the soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan partially deafened by roadside explosives and gunfire. Others are warning too that today’s youngsters could face very early hearing deterioration because of their incessant use of cell phones and electronic music players.