Why Do Agencies That Serve the Hard of Hearing Use Mumbled Automated Telephone Menus?

by Tina Blue
May 25, 2006



          A public relations firm in Chicago has offered me an opportunity to do some freelance press release writing for them over the summer. The job pays well, and my regular job--teaching English at Kansas University--provides no income in the summer, so I always have to find other ways to earn money to live on during that dry spell.

          But there is a problem.  To do this job, I will sometimes need to interact with clients on the telephone. No way around that. I will need to interview them in real time to make sure I understand their products and the purpose of the press release. I can do some things by email or Instant Messaging, but I will need to talk to them more than IM them.

          Since many of these clients are not American, they have heavy accents, and the thought of interviewing them on the phone seemed even more daunting.  What could I do? For me, the ideal solution would be an amplified telephone. I can still hear some people fine on the phone, but a lot of people mumble or don't speak directly into their mouthpieces--especially now that everyone uses cell phones, the mouthpieces of which are closer to the nose and eye than to the mouth. Besides, my hearing loss is progressive, and I am having a much harder time hearing on the phone now than I did even a few months ago.

          I asked my friend Dawn for advice. Although she is not hearing impaired herself, as a former teacher of deaf and blind children, Dawn knows a lot more about technologies and services for the hearing impaired than most people who actually have a hearing loss.  She also has a network of friends and colleagues who are familiar with such things.

          Dawn discovered that Kansas is one of the states that have programs to provide assistive technology for people with hearing loss.  The web site she sent me to listed a phone number, which I immediately called.

          The number didn't work.

          But by now I was all fired up at the possibility of getting a telephone I could actually hear over.  So I headed to the phone book.

          One reason why I hate euphemisms for hearing impairments or handicaps in general is that it makes it unnecessarily difficult to locate information about services, because you can't guess what delicate euphemism they might be listed under in the phone book!

          I couldn't find what I needed under any of the labels I could come up with, so I called SRS--Social Rehabilitative Services. If they didn't have a department suited to my need, maybe they knew where I could find such information.

          SRS gave me a phone number for Independence, Inc., a local agency that provides services to help the handicapped participate fully in the community.  But in order to get to the person that gave me the number, I had to call three times and strain to listen to the automated menu. I never did figure out what the automated menu said, but I took too long to hang up the third time, and an operator came on the phone and spoke to me. Maybe the menu itself even included the option of staying on the line to speak to an operator, but I couldn't hear it, so I don't know.

          I called Independence, Inc., a service designed to help people with all sorts of handicaps--if the suckers can get past the telephone menu that guards the gates like Cerberus at the Mouth of Hell. No problem if you are in a wheelchair, or if you are blind. But if you are hard of hearing, well, that's the breaks.

          I could "hear" the soft-spoken man's voice reciting the options--but I couldn't understand a single word.

          I was reminded of the sound my mother used to make when she ironed or cooked. She hummed: HMMMMMMMMM.  HMMMMMMMMMMM. HMMMMMMMM.

          Maybe she was offering me all sorts of options that I was unaware of, too. Maybe what I thought was humming was actually an early prototype of the voice menu.

          Well, having learned the trick with the SRS phone menu, I just stayed on the line. It worked. After a short wait, an operator with a nice clear voice spoke to me. I explained that I was looking for information about amplified telephones for the hearing impaired. She told me that I needed to speak to Jim M., and she connected me directly to him.

          He also had a good voice, but his phone was overamplified, so I had trouble understanding him anyway--you know how it sounds when you turn up the volume so loud you get distortions and echoes? Well, that's what he sounded like.

          Still we managed to converse. He told me that not only does Kansas have such devices for people like me--they are actually provided for free! I was so excited I wanted to call the appropriate agency immediately. So Jim gave me the number--the exact same number I had gotten from the website. The one that didn't work.

          I explained that it didn't work, so he gave me an email address to use to contact them. I asked if he would try calling the number himself, and if it didn't work for him (as I am sure it won't), perhaps he could contact someone about having it fixed.  He thought that was a good idea and said he would do that right away. I asked if he would call me back after he tried it and let me know whether it had worked for him.  I thought he said he would, but again, I can never be sure I have understood what someone has agreed to with me over the phone.

          After about ten minutes I called Independence, Inc. again and sat through the indecipherable phone menu to get to the operator with the lovely voice. Once again I pointed out that I could not understand the phone menu, and suggested that since they were there to serve the handicapped, perhaps they should consider having the phone menu read clearly enough for people with hearing impairments. She said she thought that was a reasonable request and that they would look into it.

          Probably she was just humoring me.

          I was reminded of the incident I wrote about in "Good Grief!,"
when I had so much trouble talking with the audiologist because she spoke so softly on the phone. The woman's clients are all hearing impaired. Surely she realizes this. And yet every time she said something, I would have to say, "Could you repeat that a little louder? I am hard of hearing." I had about a ten-minute phone conversation with her--and it was
excruciating. Actually, it should have lasted only about three minutes. The other seven minutes were spent asking her to speak more clearly so I could understand her.

          What's up with that?
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