Like many other states in the US, Florida offers free amplified phones to residents with hearing loss or speech disability, in order to provide public accommodation to the telecommunications network. In the Sunshine State, the program is managed by a nonprofit agency established specifically for that purpose, Florida Telecommunications Relay, Inc. (FTRI). And like many other state phone programs, FTRI is increasingly facing notable challenges in delivering those services.
Ironically, the biggest challenge to overcome is convincing wary senior citizens that FTRI is not a scam operation. Bombarded on a daily basis with many offers that turn out to be deceiving, FTRI’s target population has learned to be skeptical of things that appear to be too good to be true.
Another area that requires extra effort is the change in phone technology, and how consumers access the telecommunications network. When FTRI was first established, cellular and VOIP service was rare or nonexistent; now those methods of communication are becoming even more common than traditional landlines. As consumer behavior has changed over the years, FTRI has had to adapt by making changes to the types of telephones it offers. Additionally, FTRI staff must keep abreast of rapid changes in telecommunications networking technology, to ensure that clients are able to successfully connect FTRI phones to those systems.
In order to inform the public about the program, and the wide array of phones that are available, FTRI engages in a comprehensive Outreach effort. State-wide coverage is achieved by contracting with over 25 nonprofit agencies (Deaf Service Centers, Centers for Independent Living, Speech and Hearing Centers) in all corners of the state; those agencies conduct Outreach activities and deliver direct FTRI client services in their offices, and out in the community.
These FTRI Regional Distribution Centers (RDCs) also face the challenges outlined above. At a recent meeting of several of FTRI’s top producing RDCs, these ‘opportunities’ were discussed at length, with the goal of finding ways to address them. Rapid advances in technology impact not only the RDC staff, but also the clients they serve. Not all senior citizens are keen to learn new phone systems, even when they know they are at risk for being ‘left behind’. They often rely on family to help them navigate this changing world, and to sort through the many choices available to them.
One of those options is a phone that provides captions, in addition to amplification. Confusion about this phone arises because not only do state programs like FTRI offer that option, but private, for profit companies do as well. Those companies are compensated for their branded product and provision of proprietary captioning service through an assessment on all individual phone bills, much like state programs. Where they differ is that this assessment and payment is administered at the federal level, overseen by the FCC. These caption phones operate on Internet service, which involves some complication (and consumer confusion) around initial set up, and operation. There can be a learning curve for seniors to manage, and some are uncomfortable knowing the ‘invisible’ captioning assistant is always involved in the call. So, FTRI also engages in Relay Service educational efforts to help ease consumers fears, and to educate businesses that are also unfamiliar with relay service, so they know how to conduct business with customers who rely on it.
As if that weren’t difficult enough, it also happens that the ‘federal’ programs are essentially ‘in competition’ with state programs, in addition to each other. Those privately held companies engage in robust marketing campaigns across the country, in an effort to generate revenue through the provision of captioning. (There are troubling anecdotal stories about caption phone installers disconnecting state phones in consumers homes, in order to ensure all calls generate captions, and cash) Their advertising efforts are directed at consumers (TV and magazine ads are the most common), and at Audiologists and Hearing Aid Specialists. Ironically, these hearing instrument providers are the state programs’ most important referral source, but the state programs lack the resources to curry favor with the providers to stay ‘top of mind’ with them. Interestingly, 8 out of 10 clients who contact FTRI for a caption phone find that they do just as well with a high-quality amplified phone, and they appreciate the cordless options that don’t involve reading from a screen, and that give them ‘freedom to roam’ about their homes as they chat with friends and family.