NIDILRR-Funded Research in Action: Real-Time Text

Technology developed by NIDILRR-funded researchers is making communication easier and more conversation-friendly for people who are Deaf, hard-of-hearing, or have speech disabilities! On Friday, December 16th, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) amended its rules to allow phone companies to replace support for TTY, an outdated form of telephone communications, with support for real-time text (RTT) developed by the NIDILRR-funded Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Telecommunication Access.

RTT is changing the text-messaging game. With standard text-messaging, the user types the message, then must hit “send” for the message to be delivered to the recipient. RTT allows characters to be sent as they are created, without hitting “send.” This means text messages can be sent and received like a conversation, as words will appear on the receiver’s end as they are typed. RTT can replace TTY technology, giving communication companies a better option for providing accessible services to their customers with hearing and speech disabilities. Consumers can use off-the-shelf devices like smartphones, without needing to purchase expensive or hard-to-find assistive technology.  More importantly, the people they call do not need any special equipment in order to use RTT either.  Older individuals with hearing impairments can use voice to talk, but the people they are talking to can use text to respond if the older person cannot hear or understand what is being said. This technology also improves 911 communication, since operators will be able to receive incomplete messages from people in need.  With simultaneous voice and RTT in place, captioned telephony services can take advantage of the technology to offer real-time captions of phone conversations. In addition, anyone on a call can use the RTT to caption or annotate what is being said, including using speech-to-text functions on existing devices to display the conversation visually in real time.

According to the FCC: “As the nation’s communications networks migrate to IP-based environments, real-time technology will allow Americans with disabilities to use the same communications devices as their friends, relatives, and colleagues, and more seamlessly integrate into tomorrow’s communication networks.”

Gregg Vanderheiden, PhD, Project Director of the NIDILRR-funded Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Telecommunication Access (RERC-TA), said that development of real-time text was a major effort of the RERC from 1999 through 2015. The three RERC-TA partners (Trace Center, the Technology Access Program at Gallaudet University, and Omnitor AB) continued RTT-related standards work and contributions to policy efforts at the FCC with support from the RERC on Universal Interface and Information Technology Access (RERC UIITA) at the University of Maryland, and the RERC on Accessibility, Usability, and Performance of Technology for Individuals who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing (DHH RERC) at Gallaudet University. Omnitor AB, a Swedish company, developed the technology behind RTT and continued to participate in international standards efforts.

The order adopted by the FCC on December 15th allows communication companies to transition to RTT as a replacement for TTY, providing a service with superior reliability, efficiency, character sets, features, and speed over TTY. Networks will still be required to provide services that are compatible with existing TTY services and interoperable with RTT applications on other networks.

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