Having WORDS with Sprint WebCapTel

The importance of the words we use in everyday communication could hardly be understated.  While body language, context, vocal intonation, pitch, etc. are significant factors in interpreting intended or implied meaning, the words themselves are the common-language root of our vocal communication.  For people in the hearing impaired and Hard of Hearing (HOH) community, however, understanding spoken words can be a constant challenge.  While they may get the gist of what someone else is saying, much of the nuance, and at times the actual content of the message, can be lost in translation.

My wife and son are both hearing impaired and utilize digital hearing aids programmed for their specific hearing losses.  My wife relies heavily on speech reading in certain situations to augment the words she doesn’t clearly hear, even with the use of her hearing aids.  Unfortunately, all the digital technology we’ve tried hasn’t bridged the gap of talking to other people on the telephone with confidence, as the other person isn’t present to speech read.  For obvious reasons, the idea of something as simple as making a routine telephone call can create some unnecessary anxiety.

What to do?  Enter CapTel.

For those who may never have heard of CapTel it’s a service which allows anyone with difficulty hearing over the telephone to receive a word-for-word transcript of the conversation, live.  I first learned about CapTel from an advertisement in Hearing Loss magazine for Hamilton CapTel, a transcription app for the iPhone which works with the CapTel service.  My wife, however, isn’t a big gadget fan (unlike me!) so the iPhone option was out.  Thankfully, we found that Sprint also offers Sprint CapTel, (aka WebCapTel).  All you need (other than a telephone) is an Internet connection and a web browser.

A GREAT concept!  Sadly, the reality is not so great.

You can use the links above to learn more about how the whole process works.  For now, I wanted to share wife’s most recent experience using it.

Below is a the actual text rendered by WebCapTel during a recent call my wife made to her Audiologist’s office, Advanced Audiology.  She got the answering machine, but here was what WebCapTel told her was being spoken on the recording.

(Recording) Hello Thank-you for calling advanced ideology the opposite of Doctor Carey Hill are office hours are Monday through Thursday 9 am to 5 pm the office is closed daily from 12 2 2 pm please neither name for number and a brief messageand we will get equity as soon as we can Thank-you have a great day at the tone …


In case you missed it, below is the same transcript with boldface added to highlight the translation failures of the system.  You can figure out for yourself what was actually recorded in the message:

(Recording) Hello Thank-you for calling advanced ideology the opposite of Doctor Carey Hill are office hours are Monday through Thursday 9 am to 5 pm the office is closed daily from 12 2 2 pm please neither name for number and a brief message and we will get equity as soon as we can Thank-you have a great day at the tone

WTH?!? How is THIS any better??? My wife can do better than this, unamplified, through speech reading alone!

Now don’t get me wrong.  I don’t expect any automated system to provide 100% accuracy when doing speech-to-text transcription.  However, with CapTel the transcription stream is supposed to be reviewed by a trained captioning agent (whatever that is) to make necessary corrections in real time to ensure the text matches what was actually said by each participant on the call.

Incidentally, the other, unadvertised *feature*, is that the text appears several seconds after the words are spoken.  Presumably, this is to give the captioner time to clean up any translation errors before they’re displayed.  Well, not in this case.

It’s difficult enough for those with disabilities to use some of the basic services, like the telephone, that those without disabilities take for granted every day.  If a company is going to provide a service which promises to bridge that gap, it would be nice if they would actually deliver.

But perhaps in the instance, as with many, you get what you pay for.

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2 Responses to Having WORDS with Sprint WebCapTel

  1. Anna Nicole says:

    It’s not an automated system that captions the words as they’re being said. The captioning agent is repeating everything word for word as clearly as they can into a voice recognition program that then takes what they say and puts it on the screen. If you think this sounds easy to do, turn on a sitcom, like How I Met Your Mother, for instance, and try to repeat everything word for word without stumbling over your words or making any mistakes, all the while making sure you are clearly enunciating everything more than anyone does in actual conversation so the faulty computer program can understand what’s being said. Then, listening to the conversation as it’s happening, the captioning agent is also reading what had been generated by the software for errors, trying to go in and correct them, and keep up with the conversation pace, still repeating everything exactly as it’s being said. Sounds like a lot of multitasking? It is. It s also just as frustrating for the captioning agent as it is for you when the voice recognition software doesn’t understand what’s being said and swaps something like audiology for ideology. And these captioning agents are humans, so they get tired. They have bad days. They have to stop to drink water because their throats are dry from repeating everything and they’re in pain. There’s technical errors where they sometimes can’t get their computers to work so they can’t go in and correct the errors. And sometimes it’s a lot harder for them to see those errors towards the end of their 8 hour shift of taking call after call. As soon as they finish with your call they get another call from someone else CapTel phone that they need to keep up with in real time. My suggestion is if the phone doesn’t work for you, don’t use it and tell others to do the same. Also, letting other CapTel users know how much work actually goes into captioning a call would be excellent. You’ll be doing the captioning agents a favor.

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