Communication technology has exploded in the last ten years. We have a world at our fingertips. And yet, one of the most common devises of modern communication, the telephone, is a source of fear for many people with speech difficulties. Not only can it be difficult for them to get their message across, it’s hard to even be given that chance. Often the person on the other side of the line will just hang up.
A new service from Minnesota Relay is available in Minnesota, and increasingly nationwide, opening up a world of communication and the potential for independence that just hasn’t existed before for many people with speech difficulties. Speech to Speech (STS) builds on the proven concept used by Minnesota Relay in that it provides interpretive services between the people on either side of the line. But whereas TTY is geared to people who are deaf or hard of hearing, STS targets people with a range of speech difficulties, from a mild stutter to a problem serious enough to warrant a speech synthesizer.
Rosemary Schaefer is an enthusiastic supporter of STS. You can hear it in her voice. Before STS, very few people would have had a chance to hear that inflection over the phone. “Sometimes I tried [calling] by myself,” said Schaefer, “and they would hang up on me.” She said she calls businesses as well as friends now, with the service. STS makes it easier for someone who normally didn’t use the phone to handle every day transactions, like arranging doctor’s appointment, doing business, or even making an emergency phone call. But that is just the beginning of the benefit.
The call is a three-way conference call, with a trained communication assistant helping to interpret the words of the person with a speech disability, asking for whatever clarification is needed, repeating, or spelling words. With three people involved in the call and interpreting, it is communication firsthand.
“It’s great. I have more independence,” says Schaefer ” Independence means everything to me because people don’t want to do anything you can’t do for yourself. Because I want to do everything for myself.”
Sara Meyer, STS coordinator, does outreach for the program. Minnesota has made an aggressive effort since the program’s inception in September 1999 to get the message directly to the people who need it. Meyer has been working tenaciously to get the word out about STS.
While Meyer only does outreach part time for the service, she has 15 years of experience working with the communities that include people with speech difficulties. Jim Alan, program administrator for Telecommunications Access for Communications Impaired Persons (TACIP), knew that with Meyer’s experience, she was the only one for the job. “This is a very difficult thing to market,” said Alan, “unless you actually get into peoples homes or visit them in some other quiet location where you can spend an hour or two with people and get them perhaps to overcome some fears about using the telephone because of concerns about how they sound to other people.”
The fear of the phone is not always easy to overcome. “Calling was the whole fear I had,” said Jeff Vanderveer, an STS user. “Even if I didn’t have to give an interview, I would be afraid to be rejected.”
Meyer recognizes the learning process that goes into using STS. The users of STS have often abandoned the notion of using the phone, more so than even those with hearing loss who now use TTY. “I know that it’s going to take twice as long [as TTY] for people with speech differences,” says Meyer, “because we need to learn telephone skills, need to be comfortable using the phone. And you also have a human interface, not an electronic one.”
Minnesota has been very successful, though in helping people to overcome the obstacles and begin using the service. Minnesota’s call volume is the fastest growing and third highest in the nation for the program. Alan says this is due to Sara Meyer and the direct outreach approach in Minnesota, the only state to do this kind of outreach. He says other states have had success through word of mouth, but he recognizes the value of going directly to the source.
“There’s thousands of people in MN that would be able to benefit from this program,” said Alan. “We’ve got one outreach person. We need more outreach staff.”
STS works for people with a variety of speech difficulties, from cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, Huntington’s chorea, amyotropic lateral sclerosis, head injury, other degenerative diseases or the effects of a stroke. It also works for someone with a stutter, or other speech difficulty that makes them uncomfortable on the phone. Callers can use talking machines with the program, too.
Schaefer wants to help spread the word about the program. “I use my talking machine with STS. It will help other people with talking machines, because the STS does save a lot of time,” she said. “I think that is wonderful.”
The program is funded with a portion of the $.12 per month TACIP surcharge on each telephone access line in the state. The FCC is currently soliciting comments on the mandating of STS federally by March 2000. Support is growing.
Meyer believes the success of the program in Minnesota has its roots in the social service system. She said that those in Minnesota in the helping/providing professions have set the stage for STS to be accepted. “Their education, their awareness, all of that has been given so much good attention that as soon as you bring a new tool along they jump on it.”
Even though STS faces some obstacles for its acceptance by a community uncomfortable with the telephone, the service itself isn’t a hard sell. It’s toll-free unless there are long-distance charges. The service is also set up with a database for returning callers so they can store information to be accessed quickly by the communications assistant, like address information, so that the caller doesn’t have to struggle to repeat lengthy information. Callers can also test out the service with a trusted friend in order to build a comfort level with the phone, and then move on to other calls.
The program is relatively new, but the commitment of the people involved has always been there. Alan said, “The first time I saw it demonstrated, frankly it brought a tear to my eye. And I made up my mind – that was probably three years ago – that we were going deploy speech to speech as soon as we possibly could.”