They're Bearing The Gift Of Sound

When United Airlines Flight 427 crashed in Colorado Springs in September, 1991, it was less than a block from Jo Waldron's house. But because Waldron is profoundly deaf--she was born 44 years ago with a 97% hearing loss--she didn't know what the flashing lights outside meant. Had there been a gas-main explosion? Should she bustle her sons to safety or stay put? Her frantic phone calls to local newscasters and a hospital--which she was able to make thanks to a prototype of a new device for telephones that she had helped develop--were curtly rebuffed with admonitions to "turn on the TV" or "listen to the radio."

That was just one of a lifelong series of frustrations at being cut off from a world saturated with telecommunications. In fact, Waldron and Shirley A. Crouch, her business partner, had decided a year earlier that it was high time for the isolation of deaf people to end. The co-owners of Phoenix Management Inc.--founded to counsel people with disabilities and sponsor job fairs at large companies--launched the company on a new track: developing low-cost technology for the handicapped.

Their initial product is an $80 device dubbed HATIS, short for Hearing Aid Telephone Interconnect System. Waldron used it to call her mother and, for the first time ever, heard her mother's voice. Existing hearing-aid-compatible phones are fine for people with a slight-to-moderate hearing loss, says Waldron. But most of the 30 million hearing-impaired Americans can't understand what they hear on such phones, she insists. "I've met thousands of deaf people, but only three of them use a hearing-aid-compatible phone." The reason: Background noises also get amplified, and these unwanted sounds can drown out the words.

MUSIC AND NEWS. HATIS is different because it plugs directly into a headphone jack in electronic equipment--TV sets, multimedia computers, cellular telephones--or in a small adapter for regular phones. As a result, HATIS funnels electronic signals straight to a user's hearing aid, avoiding the corruption of sound waves that travel through the air (box). Says Waldron: "It's really that simple."

Well, not quite. The signals actually go to a special earpiece, shaped like a flat banana, that sits atop the user's ear. Inside is a so-called induction coil that activates the hearing aid via an electromagnetic field. And since the hearing aid amplifies an electromagnetic signal, not mechanical sound waves, its volume can be increased while retaining clarity. As a result, people who have never heard an intelligible sound can listen to music and TV news.

Developing HATIS was surprisingly easy. Waldron knew what it should do, and she and Crouch were familiar enough with electronic gadgets for the deaf to noodle up a list of parts. They handed it to a local engineer in 1991. "Thirty hours later, we had our first crude prototype," says Waldron.

What gobbled up two-thirds of their time and money was convincing telephone companies and phone makers that HATIS is important. Waldron and Crouch have raised--and spent--$700,000, selling their homes, cars, jewelry, and even some furniture. "We knew it would be rough," says Waldron. "So I sat my three sons down and told them what we'd be facing." They backed her up, because they understand what it means for their mom to be trapped in a soundless world. When she had a miscarriage 10 years ago, it was her youngest son, then age four, who called 911.

Determined to retain control of their invention so they can keep its price low, Waldron and Crouch are hoping HATIS will grab some limelight at the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Assn.'s annual meeting in New Orleans, starting Feb. 1. Since Phoenix Management can't afford splashy advertising, the partners are lobbying cellular-phone makers to help promote HATIS. If that happens, Crouch says sales could top 20,000 systems this year, up from a total of 500 to date. AT&T, Ericsson, Nokia, Oki, and Motorola are among those offering cellular models with jacks suitable for HATIS. "It's terrific technology," says CTIA President Thomas E. Wheeler. "What it means is that all people get the opportunity to take part in the wireless revolution."

Waldron was "manually deaf"--restricted to sign language and lip-reading--until she began intensive speech therapy when she was 21. "It took me 15 painful years" to amass a respectable vocabulary, she says. "Just learning to say `ethical pharmaceutical' took four months. But we had a manually deaf kid who put on HATIS and learned to say 17 words in five minutes," she says. "His speech therapist was amazed. That's not supposed to be possible."

"THUMBS UP." HATIS has its skeptics. Dr. Stephen Epstein, an ear specialist in Silver Spring, Md., wants scientific tests to see whether HATIS helps profoundly deaf persons learn new words rapidly under controlled conditions. He believes HATIS will mainly benefit a small segment of the deaf population. Epstein has a moderate-to-severe impairment himself, and he found HATIS no better than a hearing-aid-compatible phone.

Still, the hard-of-hearing people who used a HATIS-outfitted cellular phone in informal tests run by Faris Howat, technical support director at Nynex Mobile Communications Co., "gave it two thumbs up," he says. Mary G. Whalen, owner of Sound Waves, a New Rochelle (N.Y.) mail-order company that sells products for the deaf, says she always had difficulty with phones until she tried HATIS.

Motorola Inc. is providing a HATIS-equipped two-way radio to Shelley Beattie, the deaf crew member of the America3 yacht, now competing in the America's Cup trials. "If it works there, we think it uould benefit the hard of hearing in lots of other situations," says David S. Weisz, manager of sports marketing. One might be sounding the fire alarm in office buildings.

Finally, HATIS can enable deaf people to hold down jobs as telemarketers and help-desk operators. Plantronics Inc., a leading manufacturer of telephone headsets, has already built a plug-in socket that will accommodate HATIS. Michael W. Erbe, special-projects manager, expects that many companies will snap up the system to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires large companies to employ a certain number of disabled workers.

Waldron and Crouch started their company in 1987, after President Ronald Reagan named Waldron that year's Outstanding Disabled American, in honor of her work with United Way and other charitable organizations, plus her longtime championing of the cause of the handicapped. In 1988, she was named to the President's Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities.

The partners have a long list of new products they want to develop, but they're short on cash. So, until HATIS catches on, Phoenix Management will probably survive on a shoestring. But Crouch, the duo's penny-pincher, is resigned to fat phone bills. "Now that Jo can use the phone, you can't shut her up," she says. Retorts Waldron: "Hey, I'm just making up for lost time."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.