Better Telecom Technology Helps an Underserved Community Reach Out

August 2016
Topics: Communications Technology (General), Public Health (General)
For people who are deaf or hard of hearing, a simple phone call is never simple. To help improve services to this community, the FCC turned to MITRE. We responded with innovative new technologies that promise to advance equal communications access.
MITRE's Evan Saltz and Linda Jackson testing the Telecommunications Relay Service.

Most of us know what it’s like to be swept into a telecommunications black hole. Maybe you've disputed a cable bill. You got passed from agent to agent and department to department. You repeated your entire story over and over, until you found yourself back with the original agent.

Now imagine experiencing that frustration almost every time you pick up the phone.

For MITRE intern Evan Saltz—and others like him who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech disabled—these exasperating experiences are the norm, not the exception. He no longer leaves messages, because he knows they won't be returned.

He is used to being hung up on repeatedly or having his calls go unanswered altogether. He once spent an hour and a half on hold. And even when he finally reaches someone, he can't be sure his message is accurately conveyed. He is not alone in his concerns.

Saltz places his calls through the Telecommunications Relay Service. TRS is a national service that allows people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech disabled to place calls using various services and equipment, including video relay (VRS, currently the most common), IP-captioned telephone (IP CTS), or teletypewriter (TTY). In VRS, a third-party interpreter receives the calls. The interpreter, who is proficient in American Sign Language (ASL), relays the information to the intended target on a traditional voice call.

Since its introduction in the 1960s, TRS has been a tremendous resource. But it currently lags far behind today's technological advances even as its costs continue to escalate. Recognizing user dissatisfaction and system inefficiencies—and committed to ensuring equal communications access for all Americans—the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) called on the CMS Alliance to Modernize Healthcare (CAMH), a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) operated by MITRE, for help.

A Relay Service Call Dismissed as a Telemarketer

"TRS is high up on the list of issues that negatively affect people with hearing issues," Saltz said recently through an ASL interpreter. He serves as a subject matter expert on the FCC project. "It can be frustrating because so many hearing people don’t know what the service is. They think they're getting a call from a telemarketer, so they just hang up—again and again and again."

The FCC asked the CAMH FFRDC, led by a team of MITRE experts, to develop innovative applications and technologies to improve communications services for people who are deaf, deaf/blind, hard of hearing, or speech disabled. The long-term goal is to achieve "functional equivalency."

Functional equivalency will enable anyone from this community to pick up a device and converse with a doctor, a government agency, and even the pizza-delivery service in the same way as a hearing person.

MITRE Innovations Aid the Deaf Community

These FCC initiatives correspond with an ongoing federal effort to recruit, hire, and retain more people with disabilities as government employees. The FCC hired its first call agent from the deaf community in June 2014. Having this person on staff precluded the need for a third-party interpreter, which greatly improved efficiency. The average call length decreased by 42 percent and the number of calls rose so significantly—by 533 percent—that the FCC recently hired a second call agent from the deaf community.

But reaching these agents still took time. The calls were either rerouted manually or else callers had to search the FCC website for the correct ASL customer-service line.

To strip away this extra layer, MITRE software engineers developed Auto Call Routing (ACR) technology. ACR immediately recognizes a call that has been placed through a video phone registered to someone who is deaf, hard of hearing, or speech disabled. The system then routes the call to another MITRE innovation—an Integrated ASL Video Response system (IAVR).

Similar to the automated voice response system that hearing callers reach at banks and businesses, the IAVR contains pre-recorded ASL messaging. Callers can choose options such as "press one for general info," "press two for complaints," and "press three to connect with an agent."

These technologies can be integrated into any call-system network. That would allow deaf or hard-of-hearing people to use the same customer-service number as a hearing person. The system should eliminate dropped calls and reduce inefficient call routing, improvements that will boost responsiveness and user satisfaction. They will also lessen the danger of misunderstandings, particularly during complicated interactions.

"For an individual from the deaf and hard of hearing community, the ability to communicate directly with a deaf call agent in ASL provides a much stronger connection," says Linda Jackson, a MITRE communications specialist on the FCC project whose parents are both deaf. "It reduces misunderstandings and enables other important aspects of ASL communication, such as facial expressions.

"This connection is particularly critical during an emergency when people are apt to be flustered and upset."

Moreover, these improvements could save taxpayers more than $17 million annually, according to the FCC Contracting Officer Representative.

A White House Premiere for Advanced Technology

"There’s so much potential for really dramatic improvements using this system—and that’s very rewarding," says MITRE's Jeff Rogers, one of MITRE’s leaders of this effort. He notes that ACR is in final testing now, prior to integration into the FCC Call Desk.

"Not only has MITRE advanced technology, but we are also promoting positive social change. We’re helping a community of people that are often overlooked to access technologies that will help them lead better lives."

The project team unveiled the ACR prototype at the White House last October for an audience that included staff from 20 government agencies. Since then, we've continued to build out the system, adding user interfaces for both the caller and the call agent, as well as integrating new functionality.

We're also developing real-time texting technology to accelerate message delivery and enhance the safety of users. This is crucial in emergency situations, such as for 911 calls. In addition, MITRE engineers are integrating and testing voice-to-caption capabilities that permit real-time validation of the interpretation accuracy.

MITRE Helps Everyone "Answer the Call"

The FCC plans to begin integrating ACR technology, now called ACE Direct, into other federal call centers, starting with the Social Security Administration.

But it's not only government call centers that can incorporate these advances. The push is also on to reach out to the commercial sector. The early ACR model was released to the public in September 2015, the same month the FCC selected the MITRE-operated CAMH FFRDC as the National Outreach Program Coordinator for its "Answer the Call" initiative. The initiative promotes education and raises awareness within the hearing commercial sector about ACR/ACE Direct advances. It also highlights the importance of equal communications access for all Americans.

"Our vision would be that the government develops the conceptual framework that helps people everywhere understand the art of the possible," Rogers says. "We’d like to see these possibilities become ubiquitous in both the government and the commercial space."

—by Twig Mowatt

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