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OPINION

Hear vets, preserve ADA-protected phone service

By ROBERT EUGENE RICHARDSON | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: September 4, 2019

On July 26, we as a nation celebrated the 29th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. This landmark law banned discrimination based on disability in all aspects of community life and helped transform our understanding of disability as not a health issue, but rather one of equality and individual civil rights.

Since its passage, the ADA has helped increase autonomy, opportunity and participation in the greater community for millions of Americans — myself included.

For two years during the Vietnam War, I proudly served my country as a member of the U.S. Army in Vietnam, where I was frequently exposed to both the sounds of heavy-duty weaponry and high explosives. That experience served to exacerbate and accelerate a hearing loss I had since childhood.

When it comes to former members of our military suffering from hearing loss, I am not alone. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, veterans are 30 percent more likely than the general population to have severe hearing loss, and those who served after Sept. 11, 2001, are four times more likely.

Hearing loss is far more than a simple inconvenience. It contributes to social isolation and loneliness, which in turn is associated with insomnia, depression, drug abuse and other physical and mental health conditions. Research also shows that loneliness can shorten an individual’s life by as much as 15 years.

Thanks to multiple benefits from my military service and the ADA, I have access to resources and services that allow me to live a life of independence, without fear of feeling disconnected due to my hearing loss. Among these resources is Internet Protocol Captioned Telephone Service.

IP CTS is a service guaranteed under the ADA to qualifying individuals with hearing loss. It allows a person to use the telephone with the aid of captions, and it can be used for any type of phone call, whether with friends or family or emergency personnel. In a similar manner to captioned television, IP CTS uses a mix of technology and skilled interpreters to provide written captions of what callers say on a screen affixed to a special phone.

For many veterans, like myself, and other Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing, quality and clarity of this service are critical.

Sadly, officials at the Federal Communications Commission, the chief agency that administers the service’s funding, are considering changes that would make it harder for veterans and others to access IP CTS and may jeopardize the overall quality of service by introducing technology not yet perfected.

Prioritizing cost management over the needs of our veterans and others with hearing loss is wrong and would be a tremendous mistake. For me, and so many Americans with hearing loss, there is simply no substitute for IP CTS.

As a veteran and an American with hearing loss, I cannot express enough how grateful I am for the passage of the ADA — and the IP CTS it assures me. For that reason, I urge the FCC to preserve access to this vital service and encourage those elected to Congress to join me. It’s a matter of veterans’ rights, and it’s a matter of civil rights.

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